It’s no secret that the modern scientific view of matter holds that any piece of material is made up of thousands of billions of little tiny pieces called “atoms,” and each atom is in turn constructed from a number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of whizzing electrons. This is the old Bohr model of the atom, and although it has been refined considerably over the years, the essential concept–that the atom has substructure–has remained intact. In fact, if this is not complex enough for you, current belief has it that these nuclear particles themselves have substructure, so protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles called “quarks.”
Now, the idea of atoms was not really new when quantum mechanicists, Bohr and his young team of scientists, proposed their theory. The idea of atoms had been around for a long time, but it was not generally accepted as proven, nor did anyone know exactly what real atoms might be. Nevertheless, this atomistic idea brought forth constructionist ideas in art, as well, which attempted to take this physical idea of atomism seriously. The atomist art movement was called “Pointillism,” and Seurat was famous for taking two years to paint a canvas of an idyllic little park scene in Paris completely from tiny dots. (To see a little of the canvas he painted, refer to the article on Pointillism in wikipedia.) His canvas appeared in 1889, well before the quantum theory of matter was put forward in the 1920’s.
The interesting thing about this painting is that it really is made up of many little dots, and, despite this fact which can be confirmed by close inspection, if you stand back from the painting a little, the dots merge together and a painting of a park scene emerges. You can see a man riding a bicycle, and a woman sitting on a blanket on the lawn, and trees, and a road…
But those images are not really there. They appear, not as dots, but as coherent images, only in the mind of the observer. Only in your mind.
I began to think, what if this isn’t just a theory, some sort of pretense, or … model, invented for the sake of its usefulness, for its pragmatic value … but actually true? Could it be that the things we see around us aren’t really there? We already know that objects aren’t really yellow or red or white. This is just the color of the light they reflect to our eyes, and color itself is not a property of matter. It’s a property of light. So appearances can be deceiving. Just how far does this go?
There is another way we are tricked that nobody has ever really explained to me before, but I will explain it to you. You are probably familiar with the additive and subtractive properties of pigments and paints. You can mix a red and a yellow color to get orange, or a red and a blue to get violet; yellow and blue makes green, and so on. This property of colored lights and pigments to add together is used in making computer monitor screens. The monitor screen is made up of thousands of little dots. Actually, each “pixel” (an invented word shortened from “picture element”) is made of three dots arranged very closely together, a red, a green, and a blue dot. These triplets are then arrayed across the screen in “scan lines,” and the scan lines are arranged down the screen to make a raster. Three electron guns shoot particles of energy at the monitor screen, and when an electron hits one of these little dots (or “phosphors,” so called because they are made of phosphorus), it glows. It emits a bright spot of colored light, either red, or green, or blue.
The color technology used in monitors and TV screens is called RGB color, from its being made up of reds, greens, and blues. To make a color mix, the electron gun activates two or more of the colored dots, generating both red and green, red and blue, or all three colors together. Your eye sees the mixture.
But wait a minute. The three colors don’t actually blend into a third color. We know from our study of light that each true color is one and only one frequency of light. Green is a different frequency from orange, orange is different from blue, blue is different from purple, and so on. When you take a prism and split white light into the rainbow, the rainbow doesn’t consist of just red, green, and blue colors; they’re all in there, as pure frequencies of light.
So this means, when you’re watching a color television image, the colors you think you see are not being emitted by the television. It can’t actually produce orange light; it doesn’t have phosphors for orange. It can only produce red, green, or blue. The mixing happens in the colored cone receptors of the eye’s retina. It doesn’t happen in the world. So you can’t tell whether you’re looking at real orange, or some mixture of red and yellow. The eye isn’t designed to tell the difference. And this isn’t restricted to just television images. Frequencies of red, green, blue, and other colors abound in the real world, and there’s nothing preventing your eye from mixing them in combinations, to see colors that aren’t really there.
This rabbit hole keeps getting bigger. Chairs aren’t solid; nothing is solid. Matter is made up of little dots, nothing more. Just a cloud of dots, buzzing and jiggling around. The dots in liquids like water jiggle more than the tightly grouped dots in a solid material, which is why liquids evaporate: some of the dots escape. And the dots in air jiggle so much that they don’t cohere together at all. But the dots are always jiggling and bouncing off one another. That’s what heat is.
Light is no more what it appears than matter is, when you consider how the eye works. And not even motion is necessarily real motion. Films and movies seem to move, yet they don’t. A movie is made up of thousands of still pictures, flashed at you in quick succession. The movement isn’t really there, it lies “between” the frames.
This ought to give you a faint sense of dizziness. When you try to look at the world through a physicist’s viewpoint, many if not most of the images, sounds, movements disappear into fragments, slices—dots.
I want to talk about this a little more tomorrow. There is a branch of mathematics that studies dots and connections between them, called graph theory, and as this discussion continues, I want to examine how all the meanings of our world lie on the arcs and edges of the graph, and not on the dots.
I’m not saying the dots aren’t there. Far from it. What I am saying, though, is that what we see and experience are not the dots but what lies between the dots: form, interval, duration, shape, final (mixed, as opposed to original, or raw) colors, etc. These experiences are real experiences, even though they don’t correspond directly to real objects. What we are talking about, in fact, are qualia. There has been a great deal of discussion and argument, support on the one hand and antagonism on the other, for the idea of qualia, and in fact what qualia are, are the integrating averages that combine the dots of the physical world into intelligible statistics.
(to be continued)