Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Atoms, Light, and Everything Else

Although I tend to ridicule ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle, let's take a moment to praise him for something. If you read Aristotle's writings on physics (or just skim them, which is all I've done), the most striking thing is how careful he is about classifying phenomena and analyz ing relationships among phenomena. The human brain seems to naturally make a distinction between two types of physical phenomena: objects and motion of objects. When a phenomenon occurs that does not immediately present itself as one of these, there is a strong tendency to conceptualize it as one or the other, or even to ignore its existence completely. For instance, physics teachers shudder at students' statements that "the dynamite ex ploded, and force came out of it in all directions." In these examples, the nonmaterial concept of force is being mentally categorized as if it was a physical substance. The statement that "winding the clock stores motion in the spring" is a miscategorization of potential energy as a form of motion. An example of ignoring the existence of a phenomenon altogether can be elicited by asking people why we need lamps. The typical response that "the lamp illuminates the room so we can see things," ignores the necessary role of light coming into our eyes from the things being illuminated.

If you ask someone to tell you briefly about atoms, the likely response is that "everything is made of atoms," but we've now seen that it's far from obvious which "everything" this statement would properly refer to. For the scientists of the early 1900s who were trying to investigate atoms, this was not a trivial issue of definitions. There was a new gizmo called the vacuum tube, of which the only familiar example today is the picture tube of a TV. In short order, electrical tinkerers had discovered a whole flock of new phenomena that occurred in and around vacuum tubes, and given them picturesque names like "x-rays," "cathode rays," "Hertzian waves," and "N- rays." These were the types of observations that ended up telling us that we know about matter, but fierce controversies ensued over whether these were themselves forms of matter.

Let's bring ourselves up to the level of classification of phenomena employed by physicists in the year 1900. They recognized three categories:

  • Matter has mass, can have kinetic energy, and can travel through a vacuum, transporting its mass and kinetic energy with it. Matter is conserved, both in the sense of conservation of mass and conservation of the number of atoms of each element. Atoms can't occupy the same space as other atoms, so a convenient way to prove something is not a form of matter is to show that it can pass through a solid material, in which the atoms are packed together closely.

  • Light has no mass, always has energy, and can travel through a vacuum, transporting its energy with it. Two light beams can penetrate through each other and emerge from the collision without being weakened, deflected, or affected in any other way. Light can penetrate certain kinds of matter, e.g. glass.

  • The third category is everything that doesn't fit the definition of light or matter. This catch-all category includes, for example, time, velocity, heat, and force.




Last Update: 2009-06-21