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Physics/Is Matter the Atom or Is It the Structure of the Atom?


QUESTION: And I ask this question because I've read that all matter is made of atoms. But I've never really read what matter is. Or are the two the same?

In other words, can the idea of matter be separated from the atom by expressing it as electromagnetic forces that bind subatomic particles together? So that there's no one thing that expresses it other than being a composite of these forces acting through space. Which is mediated by the photon to create charge?

ANSWER: Normal, stable matter is made of atoms.  The word comes from the Greek idea of something which is fundamentally indivisible.  We can split atoms up, but it changes the material that they're made of.  You can talk about matter in terms of its fundamental subatomic particles, but if you're looking at the smallest building blocks of a thing which retain its chemical nature, you're talking about atoms and molecules.  

Atoms are not only bound together by electromagnetic forces, however.  The nucleus of an atom is bound by the strong nuclear force, which is quite different.  Electrical forces bind electrons to nuclei (and cause some repulsion in the nucleus).  Electrons and protons have charge, that's a fundamental's not created by photons.  Because they have charge, they can interact with electromagnetic waves like photons.  I'm not sure what else you want to know, this question kind of makes me want to suggest some high school physics and chemistry books for follow-up.  Any basic text should do the trick, really.

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QUESTION: Yes, I see I've made some fundamental errors concerning charge as being inherent properties of the electron and proton. And also, that the nucleus is bound together by the strong force. However, the question of what is matter seems to me to go beyond just referring to atoms as basic units of mass that exist as elements and molecules.

For example, is there something yet unknown, as in how is it matter originated from the vacuum of space, even when given that subatomic particles that perhaps existed after the big bang somehow coalesced? So in this process of becoming matter we may know more than just atoms. That is, we may know 'how' space and energy interact to become a stable entity?

So I guess I'm going at the question of 'what is matter' by asking how matter originated from one moment to the next before any subatomic particles were generated?

ANSWER: You're asking me where the universe came from?  Yes, that's still a fundamentally unanswered question.  The earliest extrapolation of the known universe goes back to things like quark-gluon plasma, when the universe was filled with a soup of matter and energy.  From there, the fundamental particles had every reason we need in physics to come into existence, but the ultimate origin of that hot, superdense universe is unknown.  We know what gives matter mass (Higgs field and its interaction with the Higgs boson).  We know lots of stuff, but the question you seem to be trying to ask isn't properly formulated, even.  Think it over, give it another shot sometime.

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QUESTION: Well, I'd like to follow this up with the premise that space is the foundation of matter. Because I've read on other websites that all subatomic particles such as the electrons, protons, and neutrons are not actually particles but four dimensional standing waves generated by electromagnetic waves.

Therefore, wouldn't it be legitimate to speculate as to how space and energy have interacted to bring this about? Since from this premise one could also ask as to how electromagnetic waves came to be four dimensional standing waves? So that in probing this question one can get closer to what matter is? In other words, couldn't one also say that particles are only a by product of how space and energy have interacted?

We know they're not electromagnetic waves in just four dimensions for sure.  It's perfectly legitimate to speculate, but you need more dimensions to explain things like mass in, and not electromagnetic waves.  A holographic theory is fine, but unless you're willing to study such theories and go into both extremely detailed mathematics and many more dimensions then there's not much point in you asking me questions of that nature here.  This is not the place for a course on string theory or any such advanced topic.  The ramblings this is turning into aren't science (no equations).  I suggest you read Brian Greene's book The Elegant Universe.


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Dr. Stephen O. Nelson


I can answer most basic physics questions, physics questions about science fiction and everyday observations of physics, etc. I'm also usually good for science fair advice (I'm the regional science fair director). I do not answer homework problems. I will occasionally point out where a homework solution went wrong, though. I'm usually good at explaining odd observations that seem counterintuitive, energy science, nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, and alternative theories of physics are my specialties.


I was a physics professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, research in nuclear technology and nuclear astrophysics. My travelling science show saw over 20,000 students of all ages. I taught physics, nuclear chemistry, radiation safety, vacuum technology, and answer tons of questions as I tour schools encouraging students to consider careers in science. I moved on to a non-academic job with more research just recently.

Ph. D. from Duke University in physics, research in nuclear astrophysics reactions, gamma-ray astronomy technology, and advanced nuclear reactors.

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