The truth is simple. Finding it is complicated. In January 2017 the physicist Frank Wilczek lectured at Arizona State University on the subject “The Materiality of Vacuum,” in a series introduced by Lawrence Krauss, famous for the theory that “everything comes from nothing.”
Wilczek is a physicist who has not steered clear of controversial subjects in his career, but is, as are most modern theorists, deeply steeped in the conventions of quantum mechanics and the various particle theories of modern physics. He has come close, as in his book “The Lightness of Being,” to a field theory of the universe, but sees that field as a grid, a scaffolding, so to speak, on which is built, by some mechanism, the reality with which we daily interact and interpret.
To his credit, he sees, as Einstein and others before him, the need for something material on which to hang the universe with all it’s material “sensible matter,” stars planets, galaxies, clusters, that we study and try to make sense of. In that sense, it is amusing to have him onstage with Krauss, who with a straight face sees nothing.
But my argument is not with his assertion of materiality filling the void. That I applaud. It is with the insistence he and his colleagues have in continuing to call it a void, a vacuum, something “devoid of matter,” when there is a clearer, simpler way of describing it. In Wilczek’s universe, the vacuum is a soup of the smallest of particles, quarks and gluons, but these are virtual particles in that they arise in the soup. exist for billionths of seconds and disappear back into the void. Here is a graphic artist’s conception of this process.
Some, however continue to exist through phase transitions allowing the seeds of new universes to come into being. One of those universes turns out to be the one we inhabit and experience. Others may arise in parallel, but even though these have their beginnings in the same quarks and gluons they may follow different rules, different “laws of nature.” Why should this be? Why, to lend mystery to the process so that its reliance on fictional quarks and gluons can stand on its own, of course.
“Who has seen a quark? Who has seen a gluon?”
I haven’t found a text of Wilczek’s lectures, but have watched it on Youtube. A contemporary account of it describes his thesis this way:
“Wilczek began his lecture by speaking of the profound analogy between materials and vacuum. What our naked senses perceive as empty space turns out to be a riotous environment of virtual particles fluorescing and dying away on extremely small scales of space and time, as well as fog-like fields and condensates, which permeate all space and dictate the properties of elementary particles.
A pregnant emptiness
To give an analogy for this perplexing new picture of reality, Wilczek asks us to imagine intelligent fish in a world surrounded by water. Such creatures would perceive the water surrounding them as their version of empty space or a vacuum. “The big idea I want to convey is simply this: We’re like those fish,” he said. What our senses perceive as empty space is better understood as a substance, a material.
Just as the water-based world of the intelligent fish can change its state to ice or steam, our own vacuum may be capable of similar phase transitions. One such transition may have given birth to our universe, some 13 billion years ago — a concept explored in great detail in Krauss’ primer on the vacuum: “A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing” (Atria Books, 2013).”
This turning of “the big bang” into a phase transition warms my heart, since that has been my argument all along, as well as attributing materiality to the void, the vacuum. It is of course, not a “filled” vacuum, but a field. Even Wilczek accepts that energy is material, though not, in the traditional sense matter itself, or, at least, not yet.
My own model, The Simple Universe, is described in detail in my blog posts and my latest book, imagine darkness, in which the void, the vacuum, is replaced by our easily detectable electromagnetic field, an ever present and everywhere present entity, which is at the same time the only fixed relativistic frame in existence. It doesn’t “fill” the vacuum, it isthe vacuum.
This simple truth does not need imaginary quarks and gluons. It does not need alternative universes with different “laws of nature.” It doesn’t need complex systems of particles, each with its own field and the inevitable multitude of field interactions. It does not need mysterious forces to explain electrical fields and magnetic fields, or gravity. There are simpler mechanisms for the resolution of energy into the palpable stuff we call matter. Just remember “reverberation, reinforcement, resonance, phase transition.” It explains how light is bent in so-called dark matter” regions. It offers a simpler explanation of “dark energy.” And at last we can understand why light has a speed limit.
(By the way, I am not an intelligent fish).