Many scientists have been casting about without success to find the thing— the smallest thing that creates all other things in the world. All modern suppositions about our physical universe rest on the belief that life is composed of things, which in turn are made up of littler things, and that we can understand the big things by seeking out and naming the little things.
Ever since a Muslim physicist named Ibn al-Haytham developed the scientific method more than a thousand years ago, scientists have attempted to take apart the universe like one vast radio to examine its component parts. For the last hundred years or so, they have been preoccupied with attempting to locate the tiniest of its building blocks.
An orderly little model
In 1909, Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand chemist Ernest Rutherford and his colleagues at the University of Manchester created the Rutherford model of the atom, a tiny solar system of orderly electrons, after discovering what at first was believed to be its sun and the world’s smallest unit: the nucleus.
Rutherford’s model took a slight hammering when another colleague from Cambridge, British physicist James Chadwick, went on to discover an even smaller particle inside the nucleus — the neutron.
Chadwick posited that the constituents of an atom — the protons and neutrons — are the most fundamental units of our world — until it was discovered that, like a Russian doll, within these particles lay still smaller particles, which themselves were composed of smaller structures.
In 1969, science briefly congratulated itself on isolating what it thought was the most essential of the universe’s elements when the quark, was discovered — until an alphabet soup of other particles was also found in the following decades — muons and tauons, positrons and gravitons, particles with force and particles without force, upsulon particles, tau neutrino, and the most recent discoveries: skyrmions and goldstinos, and dyons, and pomerons and luxons, plus strongly interacting “composite particles” like hadrons and even hypothetical particles, born out of supersymmetry theories.
To make sense of all these entities, physicists produced the Standard Model, the Rosetta Stone of modern particle physics, which lumps all these hundreds of varieties of particles and impossibly complicated interactions into three families and their fundamental interactions and flavors.
However elegant the Standard Model as a theory, enabling physicists to reduce all these dozens of particles into mathematical shorthand, the bottom line is that they still cannot isolate one single structure and claim with any confidence that this is it, the smallest currency of the universe — the final individual entity out of which our world derives.
Most of the dozens of particles discovered after World War II are now thought not to be elementary but rather composites of particles; in fact, physicists now allow that it may be impossible ever to prove that these particles can be further separated into their component parts.
What scientists have settled for, in the Standard Model theory, is a fuzzy approximation that may have as much to do with the final truth of life as a cyborg has to a human being.
The Standard Model is likely to prove only a vague approximation for some more fundamental theory that will reveal itself once scientists have invented higher state particle accelerators — at which point we might discover that the tiniest of these particles isn’t in fact the smallest Russian doll but has more dolls inside.
One reason for this continuing difficulty in locating the smallest piece of the universe may be the simple fact that nothing, finally, exists independently. While we consider matter discreet and definable, the fact is that it cannot be compartmentalized into anything definitive.
Even the smallest structure of matter may prove impossible to separate from its neighbors, place a fence around and say with any finality that here is where it begins and there is where it ends.
The closer scientists look, the more they discover how dependent on, and finally indivisible from, everything is with everything else. The famous quantum physics pioneer Werner Heisenberg referred to this fact as the “most important experimental discovery of the last 50 years.” Heisenberg also noted that even the question of what particles “consist” of “no longer has any rational meaning.”
When particle physicists get down to the bottom layer of matter, there isn’t really anything there.
In fact, subatomic particles more closely resemble a tiny coalescence of energy — a smeared out, uncongealed puff of vibratory nothingness.
Vlatko Vedral, a professor of quantum physics at Oxford University, once remarked that it is more correct to say that a particle is an excitation of a wave, an excitation of energy – a little coalescence of energy within a larger field of energy – much as a knot exists on a length of rope.
Although we classify everything in the universe as separate and individual, individuality, at the most rudimentary level, does not exist.
From this evidence we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: If quantum entities, which are impossible to separate from each other, drive all our basic life processes, does anything exist as an actual something on its own?
Matter in the subatomic world cannot be understood in isolation but only within a complex web of relationships, forever indivisible. Life exists because of a fundamental duality, a multiplicity of influence and being, a cooperative partnership.
The most irreducible relationship of all may be matter and the consciousness that observes it; what finally makes anything real is the alchemical Bond between observer and observed. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only a constantly transforming ‘we’. With every breath we take, we are co-creating our world.
Life is established not within a thing but in the space between two things: between subatomic particles, between particles and the background Field, and between mind, or consciousness, and matter.
You and everything around you are simply a collection of charged energy having a relationship.