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Name: Ross W.
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Question:
What are the properties of the space that exists between subatomic particles, and how does it affect the particles?



Replies:
This is loaded question! No fair! :)

Put simply, there is not just empty area between particles. The particles themselves actually are not just particles -- they actually spread/smear out -- and there are many other things that can make an appearance beside protons, electrons, and neutrons. For more details, read on.

With really small spaces, smaller than atoms, the common view of hard, solid "particles" turns out not to work too well. Scientists have learned that particles are not quite like the 'hard spheres' you might imagine. In fact particles in many ways are more like 'smears' that spread over lots of locations all at once. I tell you this because an atom is not like a solar system -- atoms are not like planets revolving around a star. An atom is more like a bunch of overlapping smears, whose positions are not exact (think of a water color painting instead of a pixels on a screen). What that means is that there is not really 'empty space' inside an atom.

Actually, there is a baseline of energy everywhere in space, often described as 'soup' from which particles are constantly emerging and disappearing (maybe think of fishes diving out of water and landing back in). So there are not only the particles of the atom, but lots of other ones around too, all overlapping to some degree.

Also, different scientists might answer this question differently, because fundamentally, scientists are still trying to figure out what is 'space' and what is not 'space'. Some people think of space as nothingness, but modern scientists realize there is a lot going on everywhere -- it is anything but empty. Some people describe space as a scaffold a sorts -- a canvas for the painting known as the universe, which can be a good way to think of it. Others say space is the universe's gravitational field -- although I think that is too limited a view. Right now science still has not figured out how gravity works, so no matter what, the concept of 'space' is still very much a mystery.

Other questions we do not know... Is a 'small' bit of space the same as large tracts of space? That is also a subject of debate. Scientists are still trying to figure out, for instance, if there is a 'smallest' possible amount of space that cannot be subdivided (some scientists think there is). Another question is how many dimensions are there in space? Most people think of three spatial dimensions (and time being a fourth), but some scientists describe other dimensions that people cannot observe (yet). There are reasons for proposing additional dimensions, but the math is really complicated.

The point is this: we are still trying to figure out just what space is like (from big universe-sized spaces to tiny spaces inside atoms), what things are in there, and how they all interact. Like so much of science, there is a lot more for us to figure out.

Hope this helps,

Burr Zimmerman


You raise a very counter-intuitive question. What is there between particles in space -- subatomic, atomic, or molecular? The counter- intuitive answer is: There is no "empty" space between particles. There are electric, magnetic, and gravitational "fields". There are so-called "virtual" particles that appear and disappear even in "total" vacuum. And because on the quantum mechanical level "particles" also behave like "waves", there is a finite probability of finding a "particle" anywhere in the Universe!! If you do a search on the term(s) "entanglement" or "quantum mechanical entanglement" you will discover that there are experiments which support the proposition that entangled particles "know" each of the others is present even when the distance separating the two is further than light can travel. So in a sense there is no such thing as "empty" space.

Vince Calder



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