What is everything made out of?
October 6, 2010 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Attn: scientifically minded Mefites! I want to learn about what everything is made out of!

I'm starting out at liberal arts college and find myself obsessed with contextualizing the things that I'm learning about scientifically. I feel like the most fundamental context would be the nature of the building blocks of matter. From a little research it seems like subatomic particles are composed of quarks and leptons, and that these particles are the smallest units of matter.

Where can a non-scientist (more visual arts oriented) student learn about the nature of the fundamental components of the universe? I want to learn about the behavior of quarks and leptons, their effects on the behavior of protons/electrons and atoms and eventually how this relates to the world that surrounds me. What are the relationships between quarks and the effects of gravity, time, etc. I know there's a problem with reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics, but I'd at least like to start to understand where that problem comes from. I'm not so good at wading through scientific jargon - but I want to learn about the hard science of it.

So I'm looking for resources, (at this point preferably online), to learn about the smallest units of the universe and how they might effect the macro world I see every day.

really, any and all info/pointers welcome.

Thanks for making a stab.
posted by Griffinlb to Science & Nature (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
While looking for CERN's Ask an Expert site, I also ran across CERNland -- meant for kids, but seems very visual.
posted by ecsh at 12:25 PM on October 6, 2010

It doesn't address everything in that list of yours, but it sounds like you'd love Carl Sagan's Cosmos, if you haven't already watched it! Episode 2 is probably most relevant to your questions.

(it's on netflix instant watch)
posted by sawdustbear at 12:29 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is written specifically to give non-scientists context about the physical world.

Hawking's A Brief History of Time is more technical, but still, I think very approachable.

If you just want to stay online, you can do a lot worse than starting at Wikipedia's Modern Physics page and browsing around from there. I find the wiki's science pages surprisingly accurate and reasonably well-written.
posted by auto-correct at 12:32 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could you be satisfied with "more" fundamental or is your goal "most"? If you can be satisfied with larger particles then you can dodge a lot of the brain-boiling quantum stuff and develop quite a useful qualitative picture of the way the universe works by treating atoms and molecules as little interacting particles.

Peter Atkins "The Four Laws" is really good as is Richard Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law"

If you feel you have to go smaller then your physical intuition from the universe you interact with becomes less and less helpful and mathematics is not optional.
posted by Fiery Jack at 12:34 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

So I'm looking for resources, (at this point preferably online), to learn about the smallest units of the universe and how they might effect the macro world I see every day.

Might I suggest a humbler avenue of attack?

Start by teaching yourself the basics in classical mechanics [which everyone should know, really ], electromagnetism [which is necessary if you want to have any understanding of modern technology ], thermodynamics [ which sits right at the interface between observable, macro level stuff and microscopic things like molecules, an amazing feat of modern scientific thinking ] and chemistry [ which is another way of seeing micro level things like atoms and orbitals manifested in the world around you] .

These subjects will give you much more information about what things are made of, rather than diving into the rather abstract subjects of quantum mechanics and elementary particles without having either the mathematical tools or the physical intuition to contextualize what you read.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:36 PM on October 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

What are the relationships between quarks and the effects of gravity, time, etc.

At the mass and length scale of quark-quark (or any subatomic particle) interactions, gravitation is a minuscule force, and can be neglected completely. Interactions between quarks are mediated by the strong force, mostly.

The current understanding of physics at these scales is summarized in the so-called standard model. The Wikipedia page isn't bad.

It's hard to get a real appreciation of what's going on with this stuff without lots of background, particularly in mathematical physics. Without the math, it really just seems like so much random jargon.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:38 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A few of you have mentioned the necessity of understanding the underlying mathematical concepts. I've thought about this a lot, and I'm always worried that I should resign to learning the math. I'd like to of course - I'm just not sure I'm cut out for it.

If everything material is ultimately composed of subatomic particles and in order to fully understand subatomic particles one has to understand how they behave mathematically it seems like it would be impossible to really understand matter without understanding it in a mathematical framework. If this obsession with contextualization persists, will I need to learn the math in order to really understand the physical nature of the universe? Or can I get a gestalt picture of the composition and behavior of the physical universe that still corresponds to the math that underlies it?

I find myself thinking things along the lines of: where does art come from? --> cognitive projections --> where do cognitive projections come from? --> physical interactions between neurons etc in the brain --> what characterizes physical reactions between particles? --> physics. Ok, so now I want to learn about physics on the most minute level, and then readdress the first question, where does art come from (what is art).

This is just an example. Some of you have said that the concepts can't be understood without the math, and I'm now wondering if I can really explore these kinds of mental flow-charts without learning the mathematics that underlies the nature/behavior of the universe.

(does that make any sense?)
posted by Griffinlb at 12:55 PM on October 6, 2010

Sounds like you're trying to deal with the problem of philosophy and irreducibility. For something completely different from your direct question, but getting at the "question behind the question" alluded to in your followup, consider Godel Escher Bach. You can gloss the hard math and programming experiments, and take his word for it that they work, and get a lot out of it (I'm a math, science, programming nerd, and half the time I skipped the hard thought experiments...of course i read a lot of the book while tipsy.)
posted by notsnot at 1:09 PM on October 6, 2010

You might also try looking for public talks in your area on the subject. Failing that, there are several good online public seminar repositories; try looking for colloquia in the physics department at any major institution, or check out the public talk repositories at the Perimeter Institute or at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. There are probably many more but these are the first I thought of.
posted by nat at 1:16 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

On preview, yes, I do actually think it's true one can't really understand quantum mechanics without understanding the math behind it. (Not to discourage you from dipping your toes in; please do!)

Why? Well, we have no intuition for it. We've seen pulleys and balls rolling down inclined planes and dropping apples and ocean waves moving and whatnot since we were babies, so we can understand physics at our scale intuitively.

But quantum mechanics is at such a different scale that our intuition fails. Is a photon more like a wave on an coean or more like a very tiny ball? Neither, really; those are both not-so-great analogies that we steal from our daily experience just to put some words on it. Trying to model a photon as either wave or a tiny ball doesn't work exactly.

Really, a photon is best modeled an excitation of the electromagnetic field, using precise mathematical definitions for all of those terms. But that doesn't mean anything unless you've studied the math, so we have to stick with the poor explanation of "it's kinda like a wave and kinda like a particle depending on what you do."

Intuition is great, and all, but ours really works best for the situations we encountered as kids. I don't have any experience moving near the speed of light, or being in very strong gravitational fields, or with things as tiny as quarks and electrons, so of course I need to use math to talk about them; natural language simply doesn't contain these ideas.
posted by nat at 1:23 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

On preview, yes, I do actually think it's true one can't really understand quantum mechanics without understanding the math behind it. (Not to discourage you from dipping your toes in; please do!)

You need this book if you decide to take this route - check out the reviews to see what I'm talking about.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:33 PM on October 6, 2010

I really enjoyed The Elegant Universe as an introduction to String Theory and M-theroy.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:40 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a freshman in college and didn't have much more of an understanding of physics beyond the introductory mechanics and E&M, I read In Search of Schroedinger's Cat, and it was a pretty accessible introduction.
posted by deanc at 1:41 PM on October 6, 2010

Black holes and time warps is a great intro to general relativity, although perhaps a bit older. I enjoyed it a lot years ago.

From your chain of logic, though, you might also enjoy reading about statistical mechanics and entropy in particular. After all, the "physical interactions between neurons" is strongly influenced by statistical mechanics. I've never read it, but Entropy Demystified sounds like it's not too technical and has good reviews on amazon.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 1:48 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All of these suggestions are great first of all. I've downloaded a few of the books recommended and visited CERN and the wikipedia pages mentioned. Thank you for all the answers!

On preview, yes, I do actually think it's true one can't really understand quantum mechanics without understanding the math behind it. (Not to discourage you from dipping your toes in; please do!)

Thanks for the wave/ball analogy. Now I totally get the problem with visualizing non-familiar (subatomic) phenomena/structures...

I guess my question is, do you (or anyone else) see the mathematical understanding of quantum physics as an important lens through which you can begin to understand the world? In other words, would you recommend investing in the math behind quantum physics to someone who's trying to make sense of the world?
posted by Griffinlb at 1:49 PM on October 6, 2010

It depends what sense of the world you'd like to make. If you want to deeply understand how chemistry works, yes, I do recommend getting a grip on the mathematical understanding.

If on the other hand you're interested in just getting some exposure to the ideas, many of the resources already mentioned in this thread will give you a great start. Besides if it turns out you are interested in having a more mathematical understanding, you can always go back and build that later.

For me, yes the math behind physics is important to understanding the world, but as I said, I'm a physicist, so I'm biased :-)
posted by nat at 1:55 PM on October 6, 2010

In other words, would you recommend investing in the math behind quantum physics to someone who's trying to make sense of the world?

That gets back to an earlier AskMeFi where a guy wanted to learn all about waves.
posted by deanc at 1:58 PM on October 6, 2010

I would argue that going all the way down to quarks is unnecessary. For basic physics and chemistry, you don't really require intimate knowledge of anything beyond protons, neutrons, and electrons, plus the fundamental forces. You only need a smattering of quantum for that. It just means accepting certain things as a given, but that's necessary no matter what level of science you're studying, because there are always unanswered questions.

As far as theoretical physics goes, it's interesting stuff, but it won't help you much to understand or contextualize your everyday world. It's not very useful for the Big Questions either (What is time? Where does gravity come from? How did the universe begin? etc), because those issues have yet to be settled. Unified field theories are still just math and speculation.

If I had to suggest you learn about just one thing, it would be thermodynamics. Learn to see natural processes in terms of energy flow, and everything else starts to make more sense.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:06 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess my question is, do you (or anyone else) see the mathematical understanding of quantum physics as an important lens through which you can begin to understand the world? In other words, would you recommend investing in the math behind quantum physics to someone who's trying to make sense of the world?

That's probably going to vary a lot. I found it completely worthwhile; it's really cool to be able to get a peak at the underpinnings of the universe. However, I'm a scientist, and while I don't work with quantum physics much (though it is the basis for several sorts of techniques I use), I'm obviously interested in science and math for their own sakes. Do I find quantum physics beautiful and fascinating? Yes. Has it influenced my understanding of consciousness, or of art and love and other parts of the human experience (beyond the basic understanding that these things are ultimately dependent on biology and chemistry and physics)? Not really, and you'll see in the next paragraphs why.

If you are primarily interested in answering those sorts of Big Questions - if you, for example, want to view things completely through the lens of "where does art come from?", and you don't have much of an innate interest in science - you may find it really frustrating. There are too many different levels of physics and chemistry and biology between quarks and neurons and art museums - and too much that we don't understand at each level - for you to be able to say "ah, yes, now I see how quantum mechanics influences our experience of art."

The subatomic stuff is very unintuitive, and it only goes a small way towards helping you towards the art goal. With quantum, you can better understand how and why various sorts of atoms interact, but it gets less and less useful as you look at bigger and bigger things. Once you're talking about the behavior of molecules as a whole, you're into the realm of traditional chemistry, and that's got completely different sets of things to learn. (Organic and inorganic chemistry, thermodynamics, kinetics, etc.) Now, those neurons you were talking about? They're several steps above that. From basic chemistry, we head to biochemistry: the neurons aren't just interacting via "physics." Rather, a variety of compounds are used as neurotransmitters, and the way they're built, regulated, taken into and out of cells, etc. is under the purview of biochemistry and biology - and so now you've got to learn about protein structure and cell membranes and so on. And then, of course, there's the question of the neuron as a full cell, and how it and other cells work together to form the brain. And then there's the question of how thought, and consciousness, and so on come from the brain, and that, of course, is really a huge unknown. And connecting that to art, well, that heads into anthropology and psychology and philosophy and...

At each step, you're talking about bigger, more complicated, less well-understood systems, and the importance of any given subatomic interaction will play a smaller and smaller role in understanding how those systems work. If you're OK with the uncertainties and the fact that you won't have one set of straightforward, clear facts and mechanisms you can use to "readdress the first question, where does art come from (what is art)".... go for it, and learn the math necessary to do so. It's completely possible to understand about as much of the big picture as any scientist does. If this doesn't appeal, though, and if the lack of a clear answer at the end will be frustrating, you might be happier just trying to explore everything via some of the popular science resources in this thread. After all, if any of them really end up fascinating you, you can always learn more.
posted by ubersturm at 2:41 PM on October 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

Feynman's QED doesn't get down to quarks, but it does a great job on photons and electrons. It's very readable, and short.
posted by novalis_dt at 8:04 PM on October 6, 2010

You are at a very good college, if I'm reading your past questions right -- go find the faculty members and fellow students who can help you with this!

Does your school have "physics for nonmajors" courses? Even if not, the physics faculty must have open office hours during which you could drop by, introduce yourself and explain that you are been wondering about these things and ask what they would recommend to pursue your questions.

Another place to look is the philosophy department, if there's anybody who specializes in metaphysics they will be able to help you start working through this set of related questions you have about the relations between very small things (like atoms) and the large complex systems they compose (us, our brains, our social interactions concerning art, etc). Aesthetics may also be a philosophy course of interest to you.

Student clubs related to either discipline might also be able to help (and you might meet interesting peers.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:23 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to reiterate, since many students don't realize this when they start out at a liberal arts college: most professors want to talk to students who are interested and have questions like this. We have office hours specifically so that people can drop by and ask us questions, without an appointment. You are - or somebody is - paying gobs of money so that you can be in a place with access to very highly educated people who just sit in their offices hoping that someone will come by with an interesting question. Go take advantage of this! Be polite, bring a clear question (your writeup here is a good start) and ask them if they have answers or if they would recommend a book or course etc. Really. This is what college is for, you are only there for a short time, take advantage of it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:26 PM on October 6, 2010

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood

This is a charming book, I suspect your liberal arts background means that you would enjoy reading it for the pleasure of the story and people, but the bonus is the recurring theme of his love of and fascination with the scientific underpinnings of the world. As he describes the wonders he learns growing up, you learn about the world along with him, and because he has lived these topics in great detail, he regularly delivers exhilarating insights and epiphanies into the fundamental nature of our world, tying together things I already knew individually, into a bigger picture and understanding.
And since it's a pleasant read, you don't have anything to lose :)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:24 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Woah, thank you everyone!

all the advice, explanations, clarifications, and book suggestions were spectacular. I have a lot to think about and I'm starting to get a better idea of where to start.
posted by Griffinlb at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2010

I'm not sure anyone will read this, but I saw the thread and thought I'd contribute. First I'd say you'll probably have to rein in your ambitions; connecting the sensory perception of art with subatomic physics is nowhere near possible with modern science, and it may not even be valid to consider such a phenomena with reductionist logic.

Also, unfortunately in my experience the sort of intuitive discussion you're describing does not occur within the scientific literature, and is not part of teaching textbooks. I would focus on popular science books and lectures. And that means that you'll probably be forced to follow the line of reasoning offered by the author or lecturer, rather than be able to follow your own.

I would recommend Schrodinger's 'What is Life?', which is based around the question "how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?", which seems to be pretty much on point, and has an interesting discussion of the interaction between thermodynamics and life. Also Feynmann's series of short clips 'Fun to Imagine', which are less directly relevant, but neat, and which are available online here and there.
posted by Marlinspike at 6:39 PM on October 23, 2010

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