Matter is built on flaky foundations. Physicists have now confirmed that the apparently substantial stuff is actually no more than fluctuations in the quantum vacuum.
The researchers simulated the frantic activity that goes on inside protons and neutrons. These particles provide almost all the mass of ordinary matter.
Each proton (or neutron) is made of three quarks - but the individual masses of these quarks only add up to about 1% of the proton's mass. So what accounts for the rest of it?
Theory says it is created by the force that binds quarks together, called the strong nuclear force. In quantum terms, the strong force is carried by a field of virtual particles called gluons, randomly popping into existence and disappearing again. The energy of these vacuum fluctuations has to be included in the total mass of the proton and neutron.
But it has taken decades to work out the actual numbers. The strong force is described by the equations of quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, which are too difficult to solve in most cases.
So physicists have developed a method called lattice QCD, which models smooth space and time as a grid of separate points. This pixellated approach allows the complexities of the strong force to be simulated approximately by computer.Gnarly calculation
Until recently, lattice QCD calculations concentrated on the virtual gluons, and ignored another important component of the vacuum: pairs of virtual quarks and antiquarks.
Quark-antiquark pairs can pop up and momentarily transform a proton into a different, more exotic particle. In fact, the true proton is the sum of all these possibilities going on at once.
Virtual quarks make the calculations much more complicated, involving a matrix of more than 10,000 trillion numbers, says Stephan Dürr of the John von Neumann Institute for Computing in Jülich, Germany, who led the team.
"There is no computer on Earth that could possibly store such a big matrix in its memory," Dürr told New Scientist, "so some trickery goes into evaluating it."Crunch time
Several groups have been working out ways to handle these technical problems, and five years ago a team led by Christine Davies of the University of Glasgow, UK, managed to calculate the mass of an exotic particle called the B_c meson.
That particle contains only two quarks, making it simpler to simulate than the three-quark proton. To tackle protons and neutrons, Dürr's team used more than a year of time on the parallel computer network at Jülich, which can handle 200 teraflops - or 200 trillion arithmetical calculations per second.
Even so, they had to tailor their code to use the network efficiently. "We spent an enormous effort to make sure our code would make optimum use of the machine," says Dürr.
Without the quarks, earlier simulations got the proton mass wrong by about 10%. With them, Dürr gets a figure within 2% of the value measured by experiments.Higgs field
Although physicists expected theory to match experiment eventually, it is an important landmark. "The great thing is it shows that you can get close to experiments," says Davies. "Now we know that lattice QCD works, we want to make accurate calculations of particle properties, not just mass."
That will allow physicists to test QCD, and look for effects beyond known physics. For now, Dürr's calculation shows that QCD describes quark-based particles accurately, and tells us that most of our mass comes from virtual quarks and gluons fizzing away in the quantum vacuum.
The Higgs field is also thought to make a small contribution, giving mass to individual quarks as well as to electrons and some other particles. The Higgs field creates mass out of the quantum vacuum too, in the form of virtual Higgs bosons. So if the LHC confirms that the Higgs exists, it will mean all reality is virtual.
SETH: The nature of matter itself is not understood. You perceive it at a certain "stage." Using your terms now and speaking as simply as possible, there are other forms of matter beyond those you see. These forms are quite real and vivid, quite "physical," to those who react to that particular sphere of activity.
In terms of probabilities, therefore, you choose certain acts, unconsciously transform these into physical events or objects, and then perceive them. But those unchosen events also go out from you and are projected into these other forms. Now the behavior of atoms and molecules is involved here, for again these are only present within your universe during certain stages. Their activity is perceived only during the range of particular vibratory rhythms. When your scientists examine them for example, they do not examine the nature, say, of an atom. They only explore the characteristics of an atom as it acts or shows itself within your system. Its greater reality completely escapes them.
You understand that there are spectrums of light. So are there spectrums of matter. Your system of physical reality is not dense in comparison with some others. The dimensions that you give to physical matter barely begin to hint at the varieties of dimensions possible.
Some systems are far heavier or lighter than your own, though this may not involve weight in the terms with which you are familiar. Probable actions emerge, then, into matter-systems quite as valid as your own, and quite as consistent. You are used to thinking in single-line thoughts, so you think of events that you know as complete things or actions, not realizing that what you perceive is but a fraction of their entire multidimensional existence.
In greater terms, it is impossible to separate one physical event from the probable events, for these are all dimensions of one action. It is basically impossible to separate the "you" that you know from the probable you's of which you are unaware, for the same reasons. There are always inner pathways, however, leading between probable events; since all of them are manifestations of an act in its becoming, then the dimensions between these are illusions.
The physical brain alone cannot pick up these connections with any great success. The mind, which is the inner counterpart of the brain, can at times perceive the far greater dimensions of any given event through a burst of sudden intuition or comprehension that cannot be adequately described on a verbal level.
As I have said frequently, time as you think of it does not exist, yet in your terms, time's true nature could be understood if the basic nature of the atom was ever made known to you. In one way, an atom could be compared to a microsecond.
It seems as if an atom "exists" steadily for a certain amount of time. Instead it phases in and out, so to speak. It fluctuates in a highly predictable pattern and rhythm. It can be perceived within your system only at certain points in this fluctuation, so it seems to scientists that the atom is steadily present. They are not aware of any gaps of absence as far as the atom is concerned.
In those periods of nonphysical projection, the off periods of fluctuation, the atoms "appear" in another system of reality. In that system they are perceived in what are "on" points of fluctuation, and in that system also then the atoms appear steadily. There are many such points of fluctuation, but your system of course is not aware of them, nor of the ultimate actions, universes, and systems that exist within them.
Now the same sort of behavior occurs on a deep, basic, secret, and unexplored psychological level. The physically oriented consciousness, responding to one phase of the atom's activity, comes alive and awake to its particular existence, but in between are other fluctuations in which consciousness is focused upon entirely different systems of reality; each of these coming awake and responding, and each one having no sense of absence, and memory only of those particular fluctuations to which they respond.
These fluctuations are actually simultaneous. It would seem to you as if there would be gaps between the fluctuations, and the description I have used is the best one for our purposes; but the probable systems all exist simultaneously, and basically, following this discussion, the atom is in all these other systems at one time.
Now we have been speaking in terms of fantastically swift pulses or fluctuations, so smooth and "brief" that you do not notice them. But there are also "slower," "more vast," "longer" fluctuations from your end of the scale.
These affect entirely different systems of existence than any closely connected with your own The experience of such kinds of consciousness is highly alien to you. One such fluctuation might take several thousand of your years, for example. These several thousand years would be experienced, say, as a second of your time, with the events occurring within it perceived simply as a "present period."
Now the consciousness of such beings would also contain the consciousness of large numbers of probable selves and systems, experienced quite vividly and clearly as multiple presents. These multiple presents can be altered at any of an actual number of infinite points; infinity not existing in terms of one indefinite line, but in terms of numberless probabilities and possible combinations growing out of each act of con-sciousness.
Such beings, with their multiple presents, may or may not be aware of your particular system. Their multiple present may or may not include it. You may be a part of their multiple present without even being aware of it. In much more limited terms your probable realities are multiple presents. The image, for an analogy, of an e-y-e within an eye within an eye, endlessly repeated, may be useful here.