6a. Chicken and Egg; Matter and Field

In ordinary life, all fields describe properties of something material. But what are materials made from?

In the post-Einstein view of relativistic fields, widely adopted across modern physics during the last century, relativistic fields are what matter is made from; all material things are in fact manifestation of relativistic fields in action. But if that’s true, what are those fields made from?

If you think relativistic fields are associated with an ordinary medium, you’re wrong; that’s impossible. An ordinary medium can be stationary, or not; if you have two observers moving relative to one another, at most one of them can be stationary relative to an ordinary material. This is just a way of saying that if you have two drivers who are driving on a highway at different speeds, at most one of them can be driving at the same speed as the bus in the next lane. But if a relativistic field has a medium, then it’s a very strange one, because all observers are stationary with respect to the medium even though they are moving relative to each other!

It’s such a weird notion that most physicists take the point of view that there’s no medium at all. And certainly no experiment has ever forced physicists to accept that there is a medium there.

But there are people who don’t accept that there can be fields without a material medium. And the comment section to this webpage is where the discussion about who is right, or whether it is decidable who is right, can take place. Have fun! Just do your best to make sure you’re not making statements that violate experimental data. I will join in occasionally when I can.

24 responses to “6a. Chicken and Egg; Matter and Field

  1. In a sense, it all boils down to Ernst Mach’s concept that it does not make any sense to consider a physical magnitude or entity that cannot be detected nor measured. Mach’s concept was a source of inspiration for Einstein when he devised special relativity, or to Heisenberg and Born when they were considering that precise orbits for electrons in an atom cannot be measured, so, they do not exist (but orbitals do exist!)

    Mach was not always right when he applied his concept: it was OK with the aether (experiments proved him right), but he was wrong about applying this concept to atoms, when he rejected Ludwig Boltzmann’s ideas about the existence of atoms based on statistical mechanics applied to thermodynamics of gases (experiments proved Mach wrong in this respect).

  2. ‘Ether and the Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein’
    http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Extras/Einstein_ether.html

    “According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable”

    “the state of the [ether] is at every place determined by connections with the matter and the state of the ether in neighbouring places, … disregarding the causes which condition its state.”

    The state of the aether at every place determined by connections with the matter and the state of the aether in neighboring places is the state of displacement of the aether.

    There is also the following from his youth.

    Einstein’s ‘First Paper’
    http://www.efiko.org/material/Albert%20Einstein%5C%27s%20First%20Paper%20by%20Anonymous.pdf

    “The velocity of a wave is proportional to the square root of the elastic forces which cause [its] propagation, and inversely proportional to the mass of the aether moved by these forces.”

    • Let me look at this history carefully. Please keep history separate from your own comments about whether Einstein was right or wrong about physics; that’s a separate discussion.

      Your second quotation is inappropriate; the paper was written in the 1890s when Einstein was a teenager, before he’d invented the theory of relativity. So of course he (like almost everyone else) thought there was an ether then.

      The first quote is later, and you’ve misunderstood it. Look at the last paragraph.

      “we may say that according to the general theory of relativity space is endowed with physical qualities; in this sense, therefore, there exists an ether. According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable; for in such space there not only would be no propagation of light, but also no possibility of existence for standards of space and time (measuring-rods and clocks), nor therefore any space-time intervals in the physical sense. But this ether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media, as consisting of parts which may be tracked through time. The idea of motion may not be applied to it.”

      Look at what he says: “this ether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media, as consisting of parts which may be tracked through time. The idea of motion may not be applied to it.”

      It’s completely consistent with what I wrote; if you want to say that there is a medium, then it has to be something completely different from ordinary matter. It’s what Laughlin called “relativistic matter” in the quotation that you mentioned on the other page.

      As to whether one should or shouldn’t use the term “ether”, that’s a matter of taste. Wilczek prefers to use it. But it doesn’t MATTER what words you use if the equations are the same for those people who say “ether” and those who say “vacuum”. Wilczek uses the same equations I do, so we’re doing the same thing; an ether by any other name would smell as empty.

      I think Laughlin believes that relativistic matter is a real substance that you could actually measure someday with experiments. Maybe he’s right. The question is open; but at this point I don’t think there is a working theory of relativistic matter that is entirely consistent. If there is such a theory, that would be interesting to know. In any case, relativistic matter, if it exists, isn’t at all like ordinary matter. (And it isn’t like non-baryonic matter in the cosmos, which is non-relativistic matter just like all the other matter you’ve ever seen.)

      • On the other thread you said Einstein stated there was no aether. I think you are referring to the following.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annus_Mirabilis_papers

        “These two postulates suffice for the attainment of a simple and consistent theory of the electrodynamics of moving bodies based on Maxwell’s theory for stationary bodies. The introduction of a “luminiferous ether” will prove to be superfluous in as much as the view here to be developed will not require an “absolutely stationary space” provided with special properties, nor assign a velocity-vector to a point of the empty space in which electromagnetic processes take place.”

        Einstein is saying an absolutely stationary space is superfluous.

        ‘Interpretation of quantum mechanics by the double solution theory – Louis de BROGLIE’
        http://aflb.ensmp.fr/AFLB-classiques/aflb124p001.pdf

        “If a hidden sub-quantum medium is assumed, knowledge of its nature would seem desirable. It certainly is of quite complex character. It could not serve as a universal reference medium, as this would be contrary to relativity theory.”

        de Broglie is referring to a relativistic aether. The same aether as Einstein.

        ‘Ether and the Theory of Relativity – Albert Einstein’
        http://www.tu-harburg.de/rzt/rzt/it/Ether.html

        “As to the mechanical nature of the Lorentzian ether, it may be said of it, in a somewhat playful spirit, that immobility is the only mechanical property of which it has not been deprived by H. A. Lorentz. It may be added that the whole change in the conception of the ether which the special theory of relativity brought about, consisted in taking away from the ether its last mechanical quality, namely, its immobility.”

        An immobile aether is a universal reference medium. Both de Broglie and Einstein are stating the aether is not an immobile universal reference medium.

        The mobility of the aether is its displacement by matter.

        • Here’s what I wrote:

          for light waves — which were known for decades to be waves in electric and magnetic fields (“electro-magnetic waves”), all of which travel at the same speed in empty space — there is no medium. There are only the fields. [The hypothetical medium had been called the ``aether''; Einstein argued there was no such thing, and wrote down a set of equations where indeed none was required.]

          Now, which of these statements was false? As far as I can see, every statement here is correct; I did not say no ether exists, I said merely that Einstein wrote down equations where none was required, and he argued it wasn’t there. (And he makes some relevant statements about this point in his talk of 1922 that you quoted.)

          Would you be happy if I added a statement to this paragraph that “the question of what “aether” is or isn’t, and whether one is necessary, has continued to this day; even Einstein stated that one could view his theory of gravity as suggesting that space and time form a sort of aether, albeit one very different from the media discussed above. Scientists’ viewpoints vary; but there is no way to distinguish most of these views experimentally, so it may just be a philosophical question, not a physical one. See the ongoing discussion in http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/fields-and-their-particles-with-math/fields/chicken-and-egg-matter-and-field/

  3. Not sure why there is no “reply” on your last comment where you say, “Now, which of these statements was false?”

    The following statment of yours is 100% incorrect.

    “The hypothetical medium had been called the “aether”; Einstein argued there was no such thing”

    Einstein said there was no such thing as an absolutely stationary space.

    Einstein defined motion in terms of the aether as the aether does not consist of individual particles which can be separately tracked through time.

    This in no way impacts the mobility of the aether.

    The mobility of the aether is its displacement by matter.

    Einstein’s curved spacetime is the state of displacement of the aether.

    • You’re not making sense. In *your* quote from his 1905 paper, he says: “The introduction of a “luminiferous ether” will prove to be superfluous”. I.e. — there is no need for one.

      • You realize you are chopping the sentence in half correct?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annus_Mirabilis_papers

        “The introduction of a “luminiferous ether” will prove to be superfluous IN AS MUCH AS THE VIEW HERE TO BE DEVELOPED WILL NOT REQUIRE AN “ABSOLUTELY STATIONARY SPACE” provided with special properties, nor assign a velocity-vector to a point of the empty space in which electromagnetic processes take place.”

        The aether is NOT and absolutely stationary space. Aether is displaced by matter.

        • Fair enough; I can see you could interpret what he says two ways. I stick by mine. In any case, there is no aether in the equations, and THAT is what matters — there is nothing about the aether that can be measured in that theory, whether you say it is there or you say it is not there.

          However, your last statement is non-Einstein. It is a statement made by mpc755@gmail.com . It has no basis in experimental data. Unless you just mean that aether is gravitational distortion of space and time (a la the 1922 Einstein paper you quoted) and in that case, as he says, it’s nothing like a ponderable medium.

      • Prof. Strassler, I think you should redacting the email address below (or above — I can’t tell where my post will end up). Regular viewers cannot normally see mpc755′s email, and there is no point in feeding the spammers.

  4. “According to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable” means general relativity is an ether theory. The equations of general relativity apply to an aether theory because general relativity is an aether theory.

    Curved spacetime is the state of displacement of the aether.

    • Look, you’re mixing very different types of things into your messages.

      First, there’s the historical question of what Einstein did or did not think. We can discuss that.

      Then there are these insane notions of what the aether is that you’re throwing into your huge comments that I’m not going to permit. (In particular your notion that gravitational waves have something to do with De Broglie’s pilot wave is a lot worse than silly.) This is not a website for people to popularize their own personal theories of what the world is like; nothing wrong with you having your own theory (though it would help if you had some equations behind it that actually would allow quantitative tests) but put that stuff on your own website if you want, or turn it into scientific papers (even better) which is what I do. [You don't see my own personal theories on this website, do you? that's not the role of this site.]

      What we can discuss here is what current theories of the universe and of particles and fields, ones widely accepted by a large community of scientists, do and don’t mean. If you don’t agree with those theories, that’s fine, but please go have that argument within the scientific community, where it belongs, and not on a website intended for the public understanding of modern science.

      • If you want to correctly understand what occurs physically in nature then understand what is presently postulated as non-baryonic dark matter not anchored to matter is aether with mass.


        [Abridged by host: I will not permit this website to be an advertising site for non-mainstream viewpoints (unless I personally think they've got a good chance of being right); that's not its purpose.]

        You think you are doing a public service by explaining the current theories associated with mainstream physics. What you fail to realize is mainstream physics is completely screwed up and can’t even explain something as simple as gravity.

        Displaced aether pushing back and exerting inward pressure toward matter is gravity.

        • On the contrary; mainstream physics might be completely screwed up, but it is still important for the public to understand what mainstream physics says (so that, if it’s wrong, it can be properly debunked.)

          However, you’re way off base with your “scientific” ideas, and I’m not going to permit any more of them here.

          And history has a lot of good things to say about mainstream physics. Mainstream physics predicted a Higgs boson would be discovered with a mass below 200 GeV; it also predicted the top quark, and the W and Z particles, before they were discovered. So it isn’t always wrong.

  5. Hi Matt.

    I am willing to risk posting an extraordinary silly remark. But somehow i saw electromagnetic waves traveling through a vacuum through the “emergence” and “dissapearance” of virtual photons. Can you explain why this can’t be?

    Regards,

    Michel Beekveld
    The Netherlands

  6. Oh, by the way, i solved the chicken and the egg matter. If the question is solely “what was first the chicken or the egg”, then the answer should of course be: the chicken. If the egg was first, there wouldn’t be a chicken to keep it warm now would there.

    Keep up the good work.

    Michel Beekveld

  7. In the main article on fields, you discuss how waves’ media can affect the waves, if the wavelength of the wave is as small as the medium’s internal structure.

    Presumably, any structure to the aether would similarly be visible for sufficiently-short-wavelength waves. Do any of the aether theories give any predictions about how short a wavelength is sufficiently short, and what sort of effect one would see?

  8. Prof. Strassler,

    I didn’t make a comment about your post here last week because I let myself get distracted by the comments of others here and I was flabbergasted about how to proceed. Regarding this statement of yours:

    “But if a relativistic field has a medium, then it’s a very strange one, because all observers are stationary with respect to the medium even though they are moving relative to each other!”

    That statement is true only when each observer is comparing his own reference frame. His measure of space and time is absolute in his own frame. When an observer looks at a reference frame that is not his own, a frame that is moving differently than his own and consequently has a different measure of space and time, there will be a Doppler effect increasing or decreasing in the energy of the signal, which we all know, depends whether or not the motion is approaching or moving away. 

    That Doppler effect should mean that the signal is moving faster or slower than when it is measured from the reference frame the signal originated in.

    Light that arrives moving faster or slower will interact with our local medium (atmosphere, windows, etc.) before it arrives to our measuring instruments. After the faster or slower light has interacted with the local medium it will come out from the medium at the local value c but at a different wavelength that corresponds to a higher or lower energy. Do you agree that these comments clarify matters on this point? If not please explain with non mathematical language.

  9. My answer to your questions:

    “In ordinary life, all fields describe properties of something material. But what are materials made from?”

    “In the post-Einstein view of relativistic fields, widely adopted across modern physics during the last century, relativistic fields are what matter is made from; all material things are in fact manifestation of relativistic fields in action. But if that’s true, what are those fields made from?”

    I think the answers are straight forward. Material and fields are made from matter. Matter are particles that exclusively occupy space and have inertia*. Fields are large numbers of particles interacting together producing waves of compression and rarefaction. The neutral states of the fields don’t convey information. It is only the states of the fields that are more compressed or rarefied that pass on quanta of information commonly referred to as energy. Example: A deep sea creature doesn’t notice the crushing pressure of the great depth it lives its life at because the pressure inside its cells is similar to that outside its cells. There always has to be a differential in matter density or matter action for information and work to be passed on. Modern physics idea that matter is made from fields is ass-backwards apparently due to misunderstandings with special relativity.

    * Some things just have to taken as a foundation. This definition is most logical to me.

  10. interesting but confusing – movement may be relative mathematically but does not appear so physically: if I turn on my heels I may have the same experience as when standing still and the whole universe rotating around me, but surely the second requires considerably more energy than the first -?

  11. It seems to me that all this ether-vs-no-ether stuff indicates a mis-phrased question. People seem to be having a hard time accepting what’s being perceived as a wobbling nothingness. And so they should – it’s neither wobbling nor nothing.

    As well as the fields in the standard model we could also propose fields in maths that don’t exist in nature. How about a 6th power term in the Lagrangian, or a 3-spinor? Clearly there’s a sense in which some fields “exist” and others don’t, with or without any quanta being in them. Why not call them ethers?

    What Einstein was trying to say is that this “new ether” or “no ether” (take your pick – who cares?) is not something that you can move relative to. Neither can it blow around relative to you. This is the key point, and merely saying that the new ether doesn’t exist doesn’t do justice to that. People need to know what would happen if you called it an ether and proposed that you and it were in relative motion, i.e., why it wouldn’t make a difference. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m sure Matt does.

    Adrian.

  12. This sounds quite Socratic to me. Socrates considered that we can look at any number of very different-looking physical items for sitting and recognize them as “chairs”. He therefore postulated they all have a quality of “chair-ness” which enables us to recognize a “chair” when we see it.. Note that “chair-ness does NOT require any actual object for it to exist! So if “chair-ness” (or “dog-ness” or “theoretical physicist-ness”) does not require an actual physical object to exist, why should a field need a medium in order to exist? Makes perfect sense to me. (Socrates thought of this 2,500 years ago.) Am I totally off-base here or are the concepts similar?

  13. At the risk of silly question of the year, how do we know there is no motion relative to aether? As far as I know (and my knowledge of physics is patchy) it is mainly due to the nul result of the Michelson Morley experiment, but surely that experiment was destined to give a nul result? Reason: the purpose of the aether is to define the velocity of light, and the propagation of the action of electromagnetic and gravitational effects, and as such has to interact in some way with such fields. But if the aether interacts with such fields, surely such fields interact with the aether. If so, air molecules have random motion and their strong electric fields around them should give random directional effects on the aether. Accordingly, if there were such a thing as aether that defined a frame of reference with respect to light, it would have the same frame of reference as the lab due to the randomizing effect, or possibly the holding effect of the gravitational field. The argument is a little like a river. Water may be flowing vigorously in the middle, but be stationary in reeds at the edges. If it is stationary with respect to the lab, the fixed interferometer cannot record a velocity through it.

    I am not saying there is an ether, but I cannot see why everyone is so sure there is no motion through it. Interestingly, there would be a way to put this argument to rest: do the interferometer experiment outside the space station (in an accelerating frame of reference). This would not permit the determination of an absolute velocity through space, but it should help decide whether there is an aether. Or have I missed something that is obvious to everyone else? Please help me – preferably politely, but I guess I shall have to take what I get.

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