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I recently came across this article that talks about a powerful laser being devised.

The article says that this laser is so powerful it tears apart the vacuum of space. My reaction was, What?! Let alone the phrasing 'vacuum of space', the article treats vacuum as a substance - there is mention of the 'fact' that vacuum is made of some mysterious particles.

Is there any Objectivist article/literature regarding this subject? My take is that space is not an entity, but an attribute. Please clarify If I'm wrong.

asked Nov 04 '11 at 13:16

rational_vision's gravatar image


edited Nov 04 '11 at 18:55

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The question links to an on-line article from The Telegraph and asks if the scientific community's concept of "space" is valid, and what a valid concept of "space" would be. The question apparently also assumes that the linked Telegraph article accurately represents what the scientific community actually says about space.

First, the Telegraph article isn't accurate, judging by material that I have read in a book (by a non-Objectivist expert in modern physics) titled, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, by James Al-Khalili. (UK, 2003. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.) I will elaborate further on the article's errors in a moment.

Second, I'm not aware of any specific articles in the literature of Objectivism that deal with the concept of "space" in any detail, but as far as I know, Objectivism endorses the Aristotelian view that only concretes exist and that "space" simply refers to the emptiness between concretes. This would mean that the concept "space" denotes a relationship between entities, not merely an attribute of an entity, nor is space itself an entity. Physicists (including Newton) tend to treat "space" as existing first, in its own right, with entities coming next as phenomena that happen to reside within "space." Under the Aristotelian view, however, one cannot define where "space" is (other than everywhere), nor where in "space" any particular thing is, without some kind of coordinate system by which to measure distances from an origin. And one can't establish a coordinate system without at least one finite entity to serve as the basis for the location of the origin and the various possible directions of movement or position relative to the origin.

Historically, there have been many different views of "space" in philosophy. Aristotle's view is only one of them. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, by Peter A. Angeles contains two pages of descriptions of "space" and "space/time" put forth by various different philosophers, from Aristotle to Plato to Descartes (and Newton) to Kant. I believe the Aristotelian view would be the one most strongly endorsed by Objectivism, to the extent that Objectivism has any specific view about it at all (or needs to). A key point in Objectivism would be that all of man's concepts derive from reality (existence), which is diamettrically opposed to Kant's view that "we do not derive our ideas of space and time by abstracting them from experience." [quoted from Angeles, p. 289]

Returning to the errors in the linked article, antimatter and antiparticles are discussed in Al-Khalili, pp. 171, 172, 183, 194, and 230. The caption for a graphic on p. 171 explains:

At the quantum level, even empty space is not truly empty but is seething with activity; virtual particles are constantly popping in and out of existence everywhere. In pair creation, a particle and its antimatter partner are created out of pure energy, from a photon say. In the reverse process, called pair annihilation, the particle and antiparticle collide and mutually destruct, disappearing forever in a flash of light.

Note that "vacuum" ("space" that is "empty") only means empty of matter, not necessarily empty of energy waves traveling through it. The lasers described in the Telegraph article are intended to allow detection of a momentary matter-antimatter pair when a unit of energy (such as a photon) transforms very briefly into a particle pair. The goal of the experiment is to confirm whether or not such momentary transformations of energy into matter really occur in nature. So far, they are only a theorteical prediction from the quantum equations.

Note, also, that it is not "empty space" that the lasers would tear apart. They would merely help to separate the transient particles produced by an energy transformation far enough apart, and for a long enough time interval, to be confirmed as having occurred. The article's reference to "tearing space apart" appears to be a case of journalistic "over-exhuberance" or sensationalizing.

The article also quotes a professor as saying that "even a true vacuum is filled with pairs of molecules [?] that come into our universe for an extremely short time." The reference to molecules appears to be either a misquote or a case of extreme sloppiness by the professor. All references to antimatter and particle-pair creation from energy that I have seen refer to subatomic particles, not entire molecules.

Al-Khalili, p. 172, describes the history of the antimatter idea in physics. It orginated as a prediction by Paul Dirac from the equations of quantum mechanics, especially the merging of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle with Einstein's famous relation, E = mc^2. [pp. 170, 172] Dirac's analysis also predicted the creation of matter-antimatter particle pairs from energy. This was in 1927. The existence of the positron (anti-particle for an electron) was confirmed a few years later. Al-Khalili, pp. 194-195, further describes electron-positron creation from a photon, though again only as a prediction from the equations, not an experimentally confirmed fact. Al-Khalili, p. 196, describes how such predictions gradually grew into a more developed theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) by about 1949, and that the predictions of QED that have been confirmed by experiment so far have been found to agree with the experimental results to within one part in one hundred million. Al-Khalili explains, "What emerged [by 1949] was a theory that is to this day regarded as the most accurate in the whole of science."

Finally, Al-Khalili, p. 230, explains that matter-antimatter collision and annihilation in a burst of energy is the basis for modern MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), also known as NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance). A "PET" scan, for example, can map the brain of a stroke victim by detecting all the little energy bursts when "harmlessly radioactive isotopes of carbon or nitrogen ... undergo beta decay and emit positrons. These particles almost immediately encounter electrons and the process of pair anniilation takes place in which the electon and positron disappear in a flash of light .. picked up by detectors .. and their paths traced back to the precise position in the brain of the electron/positron annihilation."

So, in sum, I would say, bring on the lasers! Let's find out if the reverse process -- particle pair creation -- really occurs, as the quantum equations predict. (I didn't mention that lasers can control the motions of particles, which Al-Khalili describes on pp. 218-222, 244-247, and elsewhere in the book.) With the aid of Al-Khalili's book, one can "read between the lines" of the Telegraph article to find a fascinating story at the frontier of modern physics.

answered Nov 06 '11 at 02:38

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Nov 06 '11 at 02:45

Thanks for the answer. I have never heard of James Al-Khalili or his book, but I am going to check it out.

(Nov 08 '11 at 17:41) rational_vision rational_vision's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 04 '11 at 13:16

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Last updated: Nov 08 '11 at 17:41