Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


You’ll Always Have the Burden With You
by Ken Liu

by Aliya Whiteley

Adventures of Doria Quinn
by Joe Occhipinti

by Nathaniel Williams

My Soul to Keep
by Eric Del Carlo

Voices of { }
by Sean Eret

Foggy Planet Breakdown
by Peter Wood

Subcasting the Pain
by Erin Lale

Expansion of Space
by Brian Biswas

by Simon Kewin


Journey to the Bottom of Nothing
by Eric M. Jones

Giving the Gift of Science
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Journey to the Bottom of Nothing

By Eric M. Jones

WHEN TEACHING PHYSICS TO STUDENTS it is traditional to keep returning to the idea that normal matter is stuffed with smaller bits of matter which is stuffed with even smaller bits. Sort of like a cosmologic turducken. The tiny bits called “particles” can be accelerated in “particle accelerators” and detected by “particle detectors.” But quantum mechanics teaches that there are no “particles” or even any solid, liquid, plasma, or gaseous matter in the common sense of the term ... none at all. And big non-material things are just made up of little non-material things—all the way to the very bottom.

This should be no surprise: If we reached reality’s bottom and found some tiny gray Lego brick of which everything was built, we would simply smash open the brick to see what it was made of. Humans have been doing this for centuries.

Around 1900 the physics world signed onto the notion that electromagnetic phenomena could behave like it was a “particle” or a “wave.” A great amount of time and effort and thousands of Ph.D. degrees were spent working out this “wave-particle” monkey business. Of course, this is probably all wrong.

We treat electromagnetic phenomena as a particle or a wave, but in reality no physicist really thinks of particles as solid stuff, or even a wave, just a conglomeration of really small disturbances in eleven-dimensional (or so!) fields.

When physicists refer to particles, they only mean “a thing whose apparent kinetic energy is more interesting than its wavelength” ... nothing more. Nothing is a wave or a particle. This is a freaky kind of thing and very hard to understand ... but everything is just a Quantum Mechanical Amplitude Probability.

Some will pooh-pooh this notion and try to hold onto mass and particles as a sensible and useful concept, despite their total lack of existence. How useful is it to see the Sun as waves and fields, instead of bits and pieces? I contend that it’s not useful to see the Sun as bits and pieces anyway, although it might be useful to see macroscopic matter as something you can touch and manipulate, lest they put you away.

But starting with a concept that is demonstrably wrong just because it is easier to understand probably makes learning the future stuff much harder. Humans don’t easily adapt to the queerness of Quantum Mechanics. But it might be easier if we started there. Instead we are fed mythologies and centuries-out-of-date stuff. Then after that is firmly imbedded in our brains, we are fed other contradictory closer-to-the-truth stuff. After several cycles of this it is hard to trust in what we are learning. Better to assume even the best current stuff is questionable and likely to be revised. To say that “nobody really understands Quantum Mechanics or any of the rest of this stuff” puts you in extremely good company:

We are all agreed that the theory (Quantum Mechanics) is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough. —Niels Bohr

Recently on the Science Channel I watched a program where a physicist repeatedly said: “The universe is almost entirely empty space ...” I have to wonder if the physicist understood the key issue. The universe is made up of entirely, totally, and completely non-material empty space. There is no “almost” about it. To say the universe is made up of “almost all empty space” is the exact corollary of saying the universe (not just the observable universe) is “almost infinite—but then one hits that brick wall.” Let’s not quibble—the universe is infinite and made of precisely nothing. And it started from nothing. Space is completely empty ... We are merely evanescent quantum waves dwelling in a rippling quantum continuum—nothing more.

This is an extremely hard notion to grasp. What we call “matter” has no more reality than the magnetism that influences a compass needle. We cling to the failed childlike notion that at the very, very, very bottom, there must be some solid “bricks” out of which everything is constructed ... but there is not.

This is why, for example, a black hole singularity or the initial “whatever” of the Big Bang has no lower limit as to its size. Some people still say “smaller than a proton.” But this is again the inability of the human mind to grasp the concept of the Quantum Nothingness. The universe came from absolutely nothing. Indeed, the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle prevents one from defining a particle containing mass (or its equivalent energy) in a particular place, and by some calculations this volume of quantum indeterminacy—a kind of error bar for the universe—is about the size of an apple. But this doesn’t mean the universe started from a solid lump of that size.

Quantum Mechanics is still a relatively recent development in physics, but it has been shown to be at the core of every other theory in physics and all the other sub-sciences such as chemistry, electronics, astronomy, cosmology, thermodynamics, etc.

There are the extraordinary (but called “ordinary”) quantum mechanical features —superposition, non-locality, and entanglement—and the ordinary (but now downgraded to being called “trivial”) quantum mechanical operators of chemical bonding, ionization, and tunneling. These are the bases of the fundamental science of our world. Yet it is troublingly difficult for humans to grasp the reality of the quantum mechanical truths of our walking-around reality.

As R. Buckminster Fuller put it:

Everything you've learned in school as "obvious" becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.

Well said, Bucky.

So by now you might get the idea that things are standing waves like little vibrating locations in a quantum field. Maybe we could excise one and put it inside a little crystal jar for one’s desk. Maybe we could sell them in the Brookstone catalog. But this unfortunately, is wrong too. Not only are material things made of nothing, but the “quantum waves” are merely mathematical “amplitude probabilities.” Their very existence is in an indeterminate state until they are observed. This makes some people uneasy. As Einstein said, “I like to think the Moon is there, even when I am not looking at it.” He was uncomfortable about the statistical nature of quantum mechanics even as he built its very foundation.


So what is “matter”? The universe is a frothing sea of little packets of energy flitting in and out of existence. But they are not “matter.” When a packet of virtual energy called a proton attracts an electron by its positive charge, we call the result an “atom” of neutral hydrogen. For 100 million years the universe was pitch black and consisted of little else. Then these atoms of neutral hydrogen (and some helium) got drawn together by gravity and formed stars that became the factories by which heavier atoms were eventually produced.

What we call “solid matter” is stuff you can’t push your finger through because the outer electrons of its atoms repel your finger atoms’ electrons. There is plenty of “solid stuff” in the universe that does not have the required external electron orbitals and if you poked your finger at it, you wouldn’t feel a repulsive force—or any force—except gravity. Would a rock made of neutronium (an only-quasi-hypothetical “Star Trek” material made of neutrons and maybe gluons) sit on a table? No. It would need lots of electrons … which require lots of protons in its recipe; otherwise it would just plunge down to the center of the planet (and maybe oscillate forever).

We leave this as an exercise for the student: Would the neutronium leave a hole?

Much of this can be explained by the generous use of abstract mathematics and quantum mechanics, but is otherwise outside the capability of human brains to make much sense of.


Okay, here’s an easy one: How big is an electron?

a.  Re=2.8179403267(27)×10-15 m.
b.  I’m waiting for a call from Stockholm.
c.  Damned friggin’ zero.
d.  God knows.

If you answered b, c and d you are correct, but if Stockholm calls it will be a wrong number. Answer a is called the “classical” answer, and since 1925, “classical” has meant “wrong.”

Recent experiments have shown that the electron appears to be spherical to within 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 meter, and quantumeven though it has mass, charge and spin—is presumed to have perfectly zero size. Mass and charge still have conventional meanings in the quantum world but “spin” is not the geometric spin of human experience. Common-sense reality is slip-slip-sliding away.

Physicists Richard Feynman and his advisor John Wheeler once proposed that perhaps there is only one electron (and maybe only one quark as well), and it travels back and forth through space and time and is everywhere at once. This is now thought to be unlikely, but nobody calls it crazy. Perhaps this is why the electron is so fundamental.

If an atom were the size of a sports stadium and the orbital electrons were to orbit at the outer walls, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of rice in the center. So the atom is >0.999999999999999 ... empty space. (Notice the tendency of the mind to still infer that there might be something solid at the bottom? Don’t get your hopes up Bubala ...)

The electron “shells” aren’t really like they teach in school either. Electrons don’t dwell like bees in a buzzing cloud. It’s all quantum mechanical, where most things don’t have a neat macroscopic analogy. The electrons’ specific locations are merely quantum mechanical probabilities, nothing more.

Other than the fact that the electrons in some sense surround the nucleus, real-world objects and experiences become more of a hindrance when exploring this jungle. This is the realm of quantum mechanical mathematics.


The nucleus is usually defined as having some dimensions, but the parts of its nucleus (nucleons) have only fuzzy and poorly defined walls. Protons and neutrons seem to be in tetrahedral stacks when the numbers allow it. Neutrons only live 10 minutes outside a nucleus. Protons live virtually forever. Nobody knows why.

As a positive ion H+, hydrogen has no electrons and is therefore just a proton— indistinguishable from any other proton—nothing more. There is a good argument that hydrogen shouldn’t be a part of the periodic table. It has never been through the gullet of a star, floats around free only as H2, and has no neutrons. So maybe it is a special sort of atom—but it’s like calling “2” a prime number or Pluto a planet— not everyone is happy with it. It is foreseeable that hydrogen could suffer the same fate as Pluto and be voted out of the club.


Protons, neutrons and mesons are filled with quarks. The quarks, like electrons, are fundamental point particles, and have no component parts ... or even dimensions. Quarks are made of energy, and they come in enough varieties, that it is a stretch to believe they should be grouped together. But their masses are actually only “suggestions,” because quarks cannot be isolated to measure their masses directly. They have only a brief existence outside of nucleons and their brethren. Only a tiny part (if any) of the nucleons’ mass is attributable to the rest mass of the quarks. The remainer comes from their kinetic energy. Lots of candles burn late into the night studying the problem. Many quark mysteries have yet to be solved.

Our search for anything solid at the bottom pretty much ends there. Below this is only the energy of quantum foam.

So how did it all start? The universe started as a ripple in the fabric of the quantum continuum of empty space. Reality as we see it was forced from cosmic vacuum as piles of virtual entities.


Based on the best current understanding of the universe, the total mass+energy of the universe contains five percent ordinary matter, 27 percent dark matter and 68 percent dark energy. Thus, dark matter constitutes 85 percent of the total matter in the universe and 27 percent of the total content of the universe. Nobody yet knows why. Nobody yet even has a good guess.

Physics, but particularly Quantum Mechanics, has its beginnings in noodling about the most Eastern-Zen-Buddhist mystical questions: Why is it now?, Where did we come from?, What is matter and energy? What is the present and future? Are all our minds somehow connected? Are our concepts of space and time doomed? (“Absolutely!” says Dr. Edward Witten.) Why does a radioactive atom give off a decay particle now, instead of at some other time? What is really so special about now anyway? And perhaps the big one: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Einstein believed that there was some “as-yet-undiscovered mechanism” inside the atom that decided many of these matters. Bohr believed that it was purely a statistical matter, and fundamentally unknowable by physics.

Curiously, both these physicists believed Buddha had some deep understanding —but couldn’t do the math.

It will be a long time—and perhaps forever—before Subatomic Physics understands how all its pieces fit together. Much is known, but a great part of what is believed to be correct is probably totally wrong. This brief discussion is designed to give the casual reader some flavor of the Great Illusion and humanity’s fleeting place in it.

More will be revealed. END

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur. His Internet business PerihelionDesign, builds and sells products, parts and materials to the home-built experimental aircraft community.