Phasing through solid matter: Fact or Crap?
November 29, 2010 12:57 PM   Subscribe

"Phasing" a solid object through another solid object: Possible?

As with all deeply important scientific and philosophical questions, this one arose over a couple of beers with a friend.

He believes that one object (say, a coin) can pass through another object, (say, a table) but it's very improbable, the underlying idea being that the atoms that comprise said objects have to be aligned just so in order for it to work.

My understanding is that the electrons that bind the atoms together would have to be disrupted, which would likely result in the destruction of one or both objects.

Googling just brings up page after page of superhero information. Anyone out there have info or links that are a little less speculative?
posted by lekvar to Science & Nature (14 answers total)

Given my understanding of quantum mechanics and physics (which is not great), I would think that yes, it would be theoretically possible. If you could attempt this experiment an infinite number of times, then ostensibly at some point it would happen.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:02 PM on November 29, 2010

Ah yes, it looks like I was thinking of the passage from the Greene book linked in the other thread.

"....[I]f you walked into a solid wall every second, you would have to wait longer than the current age of the universe to have a good chance of passing through it on one of your attempts. With eternal patience (and longevity), though, you could--sooner or later--emerge on the other side" (116).
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:05 PM on November 29, 2010

Yeah, the idea behind this is Quantum Tunneling.

Say you want to pass one atom through the table. The electrons in the top layer of the table repel the electrons in the atom. This creates an energy barrier. According to Quantum Mechanics, there is some (small) probability that the atom will be able to tunnel (pass through) the energy barrier. At which point, it encounters the next layer of atoms in the table. The probability that the atom would make it through the table is something like (probability to pass through one layer)^{layers of atoms in the table}. This gets small fast. Off the top of my head, this would be something like (0.001)^{10^20}. A very small number.

If you want to pass an entire coin through, you've got something like 10^{23} atoms in the coin that all have to beat the odds and tunnel through the table simultaneously. It becomes pretty obvious that even though this things are "theoretically" possible, they aren't possible in any real sense.
posted by auto-correct at 1:15 PM on November 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

Assuming you could succeed for the one attempt where everything is aligned just so, you would also have a vast number of attempts where everything was aligned almost just so, and get a partial success -- which would mean the coin embeds itself in the table, some percent of the way.
posted by fings at 1:18 PM on November 29, 2010

the underlying idea being that the atoms that comprise said objects have to be aligned just so in order for it to work.

It sounds like your friend is right but for the wrong reason. It's got nothing really to do with the alignment of atoms. It sounds like he's basing that on the fact that atoms are almost entirely 'empty space' when you get down to it, so it would seem to make sense that you could pass one through another if you got it aligned just right. But that explanation completely neglects the extremely strong EM forces that maintain that separation between atoms. You would simply disintegrate the material long before overcoming the repulsive force needed to sneak an atom by another.

The quantum tunneling explanation seems to rest purely on the fact that electron motion is based on randomness that follows some given statistical distribution.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:28 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, on re-reading the question I realized the friend's idea had nothing to do with tunneling and everything to do with the idea of space between atoms. Rhomboid is completely right. Tell him that there are very strong forces even in the space between the atoms, and that nothing is passing through there no matter how well lined up.
posted by auto-correct at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2010

You wouldn't necessarily have to disrupt the atomic structure of one of the objects and destroy it. What you'd probably need to do is disrupt is the quantum flow of information between the atoms of one or both objects so that it wouldn't get in the way.

Ever seen a movie where a cat burglar is faced with an electric eye or laser beam that will sound an alarm if the beam is broken? If they can't go over or under or otherwise around it, they'll use a series of mirrors to redirect the beam's path; it still flows between A and B, but instead of a straight line, it follows a course that now allows the thief to pass between A and B without interrupting the flow of information.

What keeps solid objects from passing through each other is mostly the quantum electromagnetic information passing between each of its atoms, not the atoms themselves. So if you could finde a trick that would let you redirect that information flow in such a way that other atoms could 'sneak through', there's your phase technology.

What's weird is that I think it would actually be easier to come up with a trick that would allow one object to change places in relation to another without actually passing through it in any physical way. Meaning that if I were a super-scientist, I might have more success trying to build a machine that would allow me to be on one side of a brick wall then suddenly exist on the other side (quantum tunneling) instead of finding a way to make my atoms able to travel through/past the brick wall's atoms (via intermediating vector bosons and...unicorn farts?) over a span of space and time.
posted by bartleby at 1:36 PM on November 29, 2010

He believes that one object (say, a coin) can pass through another object, (say, a table) but it's very improbable, the underlying idea being that the atoms that comprise said objects have to be aligned just so in order for it to work.

If this were at all possible, it would only work if both objects were crystalline - i.e. had a highly ordered atomic structure. Objects with more amorphous structures [such as coins and tables] can never be aligned in such a way as to line the atoms in one object up with the 'gaps' in another.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 4:49 PM on November 29, 2010

The "alignment" thing doesn't work even for crystalline substances, though. Even though atoms are mostly empty space, the forces which hold them in position extend through all that space. (So in a very real sense that space isn't empty after all.)

If you took two monocrystalline blocks of, say, salt, and somehow superimposed them offset by half of their atomic spacing, you'd get a block of salt that's twice as dense as usual— which would, I assume, immediately explode, just as if you'd compressed a block of salt in a vise to half its original volume and then suddenly removed the vise.
posted by hattifattener at 10:20 PM on November 29, 2010

Short answer: no.

Long answer: He has a better chance of winning all the lotteries on earth, simultaneously receiving marriage proposals from the 100 hottest celebrities on earth, hearing that polygamy has been absolutely legalized, and getting a 1,000,000% pay raise with a 7-year sabbatical, all on the same day, than this theoretically possible event happening. So, no.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:21 PM on November 29, 2010

The problem with these barroom bets is that one person can say "Aha its theoretically possible!" If something takes longer than the age of the universe to happen then its impossible. All we can say is that we think we know a mechanism on how this might work.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:29 AM on November 30, 2010

Quantum tunneling aside, one of the things this ignores is that electrons (and everything else) in atoms and molecules are not localized. This is a consequence of the uncertainty theorem. With fixed momentum and spin, the "position" of electrons becomes a cloud-like atmosphere. You can't "align" the electrons in such a way that they pass each other because the electron effectively is smeared across the entire cloud.

On top of that, the Pauli Exclusion Principle restricts the ways that electrons interact in close proximity with atoms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:47 AM on November 30, 2010

The problem with these barroom bets is that one person can say "Aha its theoretically possible!"

Yeah, that was pretty much his hold out position when I busted out the science. I pointed out that it was just as likely (and considerably less radioactive) that the quarter would spontaneously teleport below the table when dropped due to spooky action at a distance/quantum flux/reversing the polarity/the Infinite Improbability Drive, but he just took it as validation of his position.

But, anyways, YAY! I get to tell him that the Internet agrees with me about a discussion he's probably already forgotten about and doesn't really matter!
posted by lekvar at 1:26 PM on November 30, 2010

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