Matter and energy

Matter and Energy

Everything in this universe is manifested to our eyes and instruments in two well-known forms: matter and energy. This simple fact, which is true to how far we have come to observe – and at this point, we have come to observe very far – has given rise to numerous scientific, philosophical and even theological disquisitions throughout history. But what are they? What is its nature? Why are they there?

Despite a tendency that tends to consider energy on a higher plane than the corruptible and sinful matter (as if in the universe there was something higher than anything else), energy is the most basic and primary, the least organized and easier to understand of the two. Although, in reality, the two travel inexorably braided through space and time: in the present cosmos, there is no energy detached from matter or detached matter from energy (the best-known equation that relates to each other is, of course, E=mc2).

Any elementary physics manual describes energy as the ability of a force to perform a job. To the raw: the fundamental characteristic of energy is that it does things, or can do them: move this, heat that, annihilate it from beyond.

We see, then, that to have the energy we need a force first. Although from time to time some fifth force is applied beyond the Standard Model. At the moment we have well-identified four forces or fundamental interactions: strong or chromatic, electromagnetism, weak and gravity. Each of them has a theory that explains it, and an associated particle that transports it; except gravity, where graviton has been postulated but has not yet been observed. Let’s review them:

matter and energy

Study of Matter and Energy

Strong or chromatic interaction, studied by quantum chromodynamics. It is the most intense of the four, by far. It holds together quarks to form protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons together to form atomic nuclei, essential structures of matter. The subatomic particle linked to this force is the gluon.

Electromagnetism, studied by quantum electrodynamics. It’s a hundred times weaker than chromatic. It holds together the atomic nuclei with their electrons to form atoms, and the molecules together, which becomes macroscopic matter. The messenger particle of this force is the photon.

Weak interaction, studied by the electro-weak model. It is one hundred billion times direr than electromagnetism, and ten billion times less than chromatic. It is the immediate cause of radioactivity. Its mediating particles are bosons W and Z.

Gravity, studied by general relativity. Although it doesn’t seem like it when we fall, or when we see planets orbiting their suns or galaxies in their supercumuluses, it is inconceivably weak: quadruplions of times more tenuous than the previous ones. Its hypothetical messenger particle, the graviton, is very difficult to find due to its low interaction with the rest of reality. Very powerful particle accelerators – rather than the LHC – will therefore be required to detect it without any kind.

The four fundamental forces have common characteristics, and the most notorious of which is that all four obey field theory (classic and quantum). These similarities make us suspect that they are all part of a reality that encompasses and explains them together; therefore, high-flying physicists are behind a unified field theory that would explain a large part of reality and open the way to theory altogether. At the moment, electro-weak theory already largely unifies weak interaction with electromagnetism.

What about matter? 

Matter could be defined as anything that has mass and occupies a volume in space; although some of the force-transporting particles, such as the W and Z bosons, also possess these properties. Baryonic matter – that which constitutes everything we see and touch, including you and me – is composed of quarks and leptons (the best-known lepton is the electron). The vast majority, only for four of them: the quark above, the quark below, the electron and the neutrino.

Although the characteristics of the mass are well known, its deep nature remains hidden. The Higgs boson, commonly known as God’s particle, could have been key in the emergence of it through the Higgs mechanism. The Higgs mechanism, which can be made available to us thanks to the LHC and can even be approached in the Tevatron, would explain how energy becomes matter and can take a giant step toward understanding how it all began.

We know that baryonic matter (current) is organized into atoms. Depending on the number of protons in the nucleus of each atom, we will be faced with one element or another: this is the proton number, better known as the atomic number. An atom whose nucleus houses a single proton, for example, is hydrogen. If he’s got two, it’s helium. If you have three, lithium. If you have six, carbon. If you have eight, oxygen. If it contains 79 it will be gold, 92 and we will have uranium, 94 and it will already be plutonium. And so with everyone. 

The periodic table of Mendeleev elements organizes it in a very visual way:

Not all atomic nuclei are stable. In fact, there is only a narrow range of stable combinations between protons and neutrons. In fact, any nucleus with more than 83 protons (i.e. bismuth) is essentially unstable and tends to divide rapidly into other things, with the notable exceptions of thorium and uranium, which although not steady hold up for quite some time (so much, that we can still find them in mines). 

Glenn Seaborg postulated the possible existence of an island of stability beyond the atomic number 100, which would allow the creation in a nuclear reactor or accelerator of more or less firm atom particles of exceptional elements that are not currently present in the universe. So far, this has not been achieved.

It is possible to turn some elements into others in the laboratory: the dream of the old alchemist comes true. For example, it is relatively easy to transmute mercury into gold by radiating it with gamma rays. But if you’re thinking of riding a trade, I’m afraid it’s not possible at the moment: this gold is hugely expensive, much more than natural, because of the cost of energy needed. Silver, palladium, rhodium and ruthenium are usually extracted from the fuel consumed in nuclear reactors (originally uranium) although, again, it is not only economical.

An intriguing property of matter is the wave-particle duality that studies (among many other things) quantum mechanics. Some think that this must be some kind of witchcraft, but it is constantly checked in the laboratory: matter can behave at the same time as if it were matter and energy, and it opts for being one thing or another depending on the interaction to which it is subjected. This peculiar characteristic contrary to common sense has opened extraordinary doors for us to better understand the intimate nature of reality.

Recommended Books:

Matter and Energy: Principles of Matter and Thermodynamics (Secrets of the Universe)

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