Where Do We Go From Here?
Predicting the course of future events is a hazardous undertaking at best, as any weather forecaster can testify, but ordinarily it is possible to derive sufficient information from the existing situation and from current trends to give at least some indication of the nature of the road ahead. So far as atomic theory is concerned, however, the attitude with which physical scientists approach the question is conditioned very strongly by their evaluation of the status of currently accepted theory. In general, those who are confident of the essential soundness of current theory are inclined to believe that a fully satisfactory explanation of basic physical processes is impossible. Jeans expresses this point of view in the following words: “The most we can aspire to is a model or picture which shall explain and account for some of the observed properties of matter; where this fails, we must supplement it with some other model or picture which will in its turn fail with other properties of matter, and so on.”128
But this conclusion is reached by way of a very dubious line of reasoning. Jeans and the others who adopt this viewpoint have recognized that existing theory gives a very inadequate and, in many respects, contradictory picture of basic physical relationships, but at the same time they have convinced themselves that the existing concepts are essentially correct. They then argue that since correct theories give us answers that are so far from being complete and comprehensive that no conceivable amount of refinement of these ideas can reach such a goal, the attainment of this goal must be impossible.
The alternative, and decidedly more logical, viewpoint is that the inadequacies and contradictions of present-day theory indicate that it is not correct: a hypothesis which, of course, leaves room for the existence of a theory that is adequate and without contradictions. Those who subscribe to this belief do not deny the contention that existing theory has met with much success; they merely say that whatever success has been achieved is due to those elements of truth which the theory does contain, and that a different theory which approaches the ultimate truth more closely will have correspondingly greater success. As Reichenbach puts it, “…contradictory theories can be helpful only because there exists, though unknown at that time, a better theory which comprehends all observational data and is free from contradictions.”36
The findings of this work lend strong support to this alternative conclusion. Critical analysis of the currently accepted theories shows that they are basically wrong, and that this is the reason why they are inconsistent and contradictory. It is true that this merely destroys the negative argument of Jeans et al; it does not definitely establish the affirmative position taken by Reichenbach. But as long as there is no valid reason for believing that a complete and understandable theory is impossible, the traditional spirit of scientific inquiry certainly demands that we should make the development of such a theory our goal, and not content ourselves with any lesser objective. The discussion which follows is based on this premise.
When we turn to a consideration of the specific features which this complete and intelligible atomic theory of the future must have in order to be consistent with the knowledge thus far accumulated from observation and experiment, it is evident to begin with, that the concept of atomic “building blocks” will have to be discarded. One of the most unexpected, but by this time firmly established, experimental discoveries of recent years is that all of the basic physical entities—atoms, particles, radiation, energy, electrical and magnetic charges-are interchangeable. Particles are materialized from radiation and are “annihilated” back to radiation again, protons become neutrons and vice versa, atoms undergo “fission” and “fusion,” mesons are created from kinetic energy and ultimately decay into electrons and neutrinos, the atomic reactors transform mass into energy, while at the same time the particle accelerators are busily engaged in converting energy back into mass.
Physicists generally recognize that this interchangeability is simply devastating so far as existing theory is concerned. “…the fact that so many (elementary particles) change from one type to another is extremely disconcerting,” says Robert E. Marshak, and he goes on to admit, “…the field is wide open for a deep-going theory which would elucidate the nature and role of the elementary particles of physics.”129 Here is an admission that goes straight to the heart of the problem with which this book is concerned. The present-day theory of the atom claims to know the “nature and role” of the elementary particles-the designation “elementary particle” is actually derived from the nature of this supposed knowledge-and the discoveries that have produced this plaintive call for “elucidation” have dealt a body blow to currently accepted theory. We can no longer suppose that the atom is constructed of elementary “building blocks.” The demonstrated interchangeability demands some altogether different explanation.
So far, at least, it appears that there are some restrictions on the nature of the transformation; entity A cannot necessarily be transformed directly into entity B. But it is now clear that matter, radiation and energy all have some kind of a common denominator, and if the transformation of entity A into entity B cannot be accomplished directly, present indications are that it can always be done in an indirect way. It is now apparent that if we want to use a construction analogy from our everyday experience, we will have to compare the basic substance of the universe to something on the order of modeling clay rather than to an assortment of building blocks. Even Heisenberg admits, “There is only one kind of matter….”130 The authors who still write confidently about building blocks and go to the extent of identifying some of the so-called elementary particles as the “cement” that holds the building blocks together are simply indulging in a subtle form of science fiction.
But it is not only the “building block” concept that must be thrown overboard; the rapid advance of experimental knowledge is steadily making it more and more evident that the whole idea of an atom constructed of “parts” is doomed. The immediate reaction to this statement will probably be that it is preposterous, since we can readily break the atom into separate parts. But let us examine this situation a little more closely. Suppose we have a certain object moving with a high velocity, and we then detach that velocity by transferring it to something else. Must we then conclude that the original object consisted of two separate parts and that we have broken it into its two constituents? It is doubtful whether anyone would ever support such a conclusion as this, but if we compare this situation with the break-up of the atom, it is evident that the only basis on which we can claim that we have done something different with the atom is by contending that the “parts” which are detached from the atom are inherently of a different character than the motion which was detached from our hypothetical object.
Can such a contention be justified? We have found that both the proton and the electron can be transformed into radiation simply by contact with their respective antiparticles. “All matter seems to be radiation,”41 says Morse, and so far as we know, radiation is nothing more than a vibratory motion. Can we say that the proton is inherently different from motion when we can transform it into motion? Are we not forced to the conclusion that the atom could very well be an integral entity endowed with specific amounts of various kinds of motion (or something equivalent to motion) and that what we call breaking it up into parts amounts to nothing more than detaching portions of this motion (or the equivalent thereof)?
And is it not true that the trend of discovery in the sub-atomic field is driving us slowly but inexorably in this direction, toward just such a conclusion as the foregoing? It is becoming increasingly evident that there are no “elementary particles” and that both the atoms and the sub-atomic particles belong essentially to the same class: a class that should be called “primary” rather than “elementary,” in that these are the entities which are formed directly from the basic substance of the universe, the permissible forms, we might say, into which the basic clay can be shaped.
After all, much of this should have been suspected long before the advance of experimental knowledge actually forced us to such conclusions. In retrospect it is clear that serious consideration should have been given many years ago to the possibility that the atom is not constructed of “parts.” When the most strenuous efforts over a long period of years by the best minds in the scientific profession fail to clarify the properties of the hypothetical constituents of the atom, and finally lead in desperation to the conclusion that these entities have no definite properties and do not even “exist objectively,” mere common sense certainly calls for a thorough examination of the obvious possibility that they do not exist at all.
Similarly, the absurd situation into which the notion of the “elementary particle” has led us should have raised the warning signal long before this. In the early years of this century, when the only sub-atomic particles known to the physicist were the electron and the supposedly sub-atomic proton, and when the discovery of radioactivity had demonstrated that the atoms are subject to disintegration, it was entirely logical to conclude that atoms are constructed of parts, and that the then known particles which could be extracted from atoms are the “elementary particles” from which the atoms are built. But when contradictory evidence began to pile up at a fantastic rate, when it became clear that all of the products of radioactive disintegration are created in the process rather than preexisting in the atom, when it was demonstrated that the necessary properties of the hypothetical constituents of the atom were completely at odds with those of the known sub-atomic particles, when the number and variety of “elementary particles” multiplied to such an extent that the apparent necessity of calling them all “elementary” had become definitely embarrassing, when it was no longer possible even to imagine elementary roles which some of these particles, the mu meson for example, might fill, and above all, when it became necessary to admit that the concept of an elementary particle had become so hazy that it could no longer even be defined, it should have been strongly suspected that the answer might lie in the fact that there is no such thing as an elementary particle. In essence this, of course, amounts to the same thing as the conclusion that the atom is not constructed of “parts.”
The evidence now available indicates that the sub-atomic particles such as the electron, the neutron, etc., are not constituents of atoms but incomplete atoms; that is, they are independent entities of the same general nature as atoms, but they lack, either qualitatively or quantitatively, something of what it takes to meet all of the requirements that qualify a particle for the status of an atom. They can all, atoms and sub-atomic particles alike, be converted to motion (that is, to radiation) and hence they must all be constructed of the same basic substance, or of substances that are essentially equivalent.
This brings us down to the question of the identity of the basic substance or substances. Since all units can be transformed into motion in the form of radiation, we might be inclined on first consideration to express the question in this manner: What is there that can exist in a variety of forms and is equivalent to motion? But this is a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer, and it leads us into a cul de sac. So we need to go back and take note of the fact that radiation is not only motion; it is a particular form of motion. In the light of this additional information we are entitled to rephrase the question in this way: What is there that can exist in a variety of forms and is equivalent to a particular form of motion? The answer is now obvious: other forms of motion.
On the basis of present-day knowledge, it will therefore be necessary to replace existing theories of the atom and the sub-atomic particles with some new theory wherein all such physical entities are complexes of different forms of motion, and wherein both the atom and the sub-atomic particles have the status of primary particles; that is, particles which are constructed directly from the basic motions.
It was pointed out in Chapter 7 that, in order to meet present-day requirements, the new atomic theory which we will need as a replacement for the nuclear theory must have a theoretical feature corresponding to the “Moseley units,” the units of atomic number. The true nature of these units is almost entirely unknown, as the prevailing practice of identifying them with electrons and with “nuclear charge” has effectively blocked any investigation along other lines, but it is quite evident from the kind of difficulties encountered in the application of present-day theory to the existing situation that the Moseley units are not individual particles and they are not electrically charged. The new theory must therefore accommodate itself to these facts.
Another essential feature of a satisfactory theory of atomic structure is that it must make some provision for the additional force of a general nature which is clearly required by many physical phenomena. As explained in Chapter 7, one of the principal reasons why the shortcomings of the electrical theory of matter have been ignored for so long is that the electric force is the only known force of a general nature that seems to be strong enough to account for the observed cohesion of solids. The general attitude has been that inasmuch as no other force of adequate strength is known, the inter-atomic force of attraction must be electrical and the many items of evidence to the contrary must be susceptible of being explained away in some manner. In this present work this reasoning is reversed. The factual items of evidence showing that the cohesive force is not electrical are conclusive and inescapable, and since this force clearly does exist (that is, the atoms of a solid do hold together) it must have some other, as yet unknown, origin.
There is a very understandable reluctance on the part of the physicists to accept the idea that there is still an unknown force of general applicability in the universe, after centuries of intensive study of all physical phenomena. But it should be emphasized that this is not an unknown force; it is a known force of unknown origin, which is something entirely different. The force does exist, and the explanations which have hitherto been applied to it are no longer plausible. Some alteration of existing concepts is therefore unavoidable.
Furthermore, it should be recognized that the existing practice of attributing cohesion to electrical forces does not actually accomplish the objective of eliminating the necessity of dealing with a force of unknown origin, since the application of the electrical theory requires postulating the existence of another unknown force: one which is genuinely unknown, as there is no independent evidence of its existence. The electrical attraction between positive and negative ions would explain the cohesion of such ions, if they actually exist, but the electrical theory has no acceptable explanation as to how these ions can be formed to begin with. The atoms of the components of a chemical compound are electrically neutral before combination, and we know that ionization of such atoms is not a spontaneous process; it requires a substantial amount of energy. In order to accomplish the hypothetical ionization of the components some kind of a force is required, and we have never been given any indication of the nature of that force. We are told that certain numbers of electrons are more stable than others, and that the atoms tend to readjust themselves to the most stable condition. “The work needed to separate the charges is supplied by the spontaneous tendency toward the octet of valence electrons,”131 explains one textbook. But this is an explanation of the “nature abhors a vacuum” type; it gives us no idea as to the kind of force involved, or the origin thereof, and even if we dress up this explanation in all of the trappings of quantum mechanics we still have an unknown force to contend with.
Then when we move to the non-ionic compounds, we find it necessary to look for still another unknown force. Here we not only have the problem of figuring out what kind of a force could induce the individual atoms to give up some of their electrons (if they had any), but also the problem of how these loose electrons could create a force of cohesion. Current theory is equally as vague on one point as the other—the mere assertion that rapid oscillation of the electrons between the two atoms creates some kind of an “exchange force” means nothing without some plausible explanation of how such a force originates—and when we get past the doubletalk and the “mathematical veil” of the quantum language, we find ourselves contending with two unknown forces.
Such attempts to fit the observed phenomena into a preconceived structure of thought get us nowhere; the alleged solution of one problem creates two new problems. In the construction of a new atomic theory it is imperative to recognize that there is a force which is responsible for cohesion. The atom of potassium attaches itself just as readily to another atom of the same element, or to an atom of another electropositive element, as it does to an atom of an electronegative element such as chlorine, and a crystal lattice of one of the regular types is formed in each case. The attractive force which the potassium atom exercises therefore something of a far more general nature than an electrical force between unlike charges. If it is possible to identify the origin of this force, so much the better, but if not, this cohesive force is in no different position than magnetic force or gravitational force. Current theory cannot explain the origin of these forces either. The essential thing is to set up a theory which will recognize the existence of this cohesive force, and will take advantage of the tremendous simplification of the whole chemical picture that can be accomplished by substituting this single force of wide applicability for the crazy quilt of forces and “bonds” that has been developed on the basis of the electrical theory.
The previous pages have expressed some harshly critical views concerning the theory of atomic structure originated by Bohr and developed through a long series of modifications and revisions into the present-day ideas championed particularly by the so-called Copenhagen school of physicists. It has been pointed out that Bohr’s original postulates were of a highly questionable nature. There is serious doubt whether postulates of this kind, postulates which in effect set up a separate universe subject to totally different physical laws, should ever be recognized as legitimate scientific practice. Certainly they are of such a dangerous character that if they are allowed at all they should only be permitted as a last resort after the most strenuous efforts to meet the situation by the usual sound and proven methods of science have failed.
Even if no other fault could be found with the procedure that was followed, the two years of study of the problem that intervened between Rutherford’s hypothesis of 1911 and Bohr’s postulates of 1913 were completely inadequate to justify taking such a leap in the dark as that represented by Bohr’s theory. The consequences of this inadequate preliminary study are now painfully apparent, when we find that Rutherford’s hypothesis, on which the whole of the subsequent development rests, cannot endure critical scrutiny.
Furthermore, the developers of this theory, although they are among the foremost scientists of modern times, have made free, even lavish, use of the most questionable devices ever admitted into the scientific repertory: principles of impotence, ad hoc systems of physical laws to fit special circumstances, denial of physical reality, weird “principles” of an unprecedented character, and so on. The remarks of James R. Newman in this connection, which have already been mentioned briefly, are worth quoting in full. Newman says, “In this century the professional philosophers have let the physicists get away with murder. It is a safe bet that no other group of scientists could have passed off and gained acceptance for such an extraordinary principle as complementarity, nor succeeded in elevating indeterminacy to a universal law.”132
Yet it must be admitted that in spite of all that can be said against this development, it has produced and, to a large extent, verified one idea that must necessarily be incorporated into the new theory that we will build on the ruins of the old. It is clear that whatever successes this theory may legitimately claim are due to Bohr’s conviction that Planck’s Quantum Theory, then in its infancy, should be extended and applied to the atomic situation in some manner. As a result of this conviction, he included, as one of the essential features of his system, the quantization of angular momentum. If we analyze the history of Bohr’s theory and its extensions and modifications, we can readily see that the theory has met with considerable success wherever it is dealing with numbers, while it has almost invariably run into difficulties when it has attempted to apply names to those numbers. The inevitable result has been to attach less and less significance to the verbal description of the theory, and to develop an almost exclusively mathematical system which not only gives us no explanation of the meaning of the terms which it uses, but contends that no rational explanation of this kind exists. As expressed by Holton and Roller, “Some fundamental changes in (Bohr’s) theory have been needed…. In essence, these changes have centered on the abandonment of the last vestiges of visualization of single events in the electron cloud surrounding the nucleus; the intuitively meaningful orbits, shells, and “jumps” of electrons had to be given up as being essentially meaningless …and, in fact, misleading….”114
Bohr’s work has been described as a marriage of Rutherford’s theory of the nuclear atom with Planck’s theory of the quantum. (Ernest Nagel calls it an “eclectic fusion.”) The subsequent developments have had the effect of a divorce. The “abandonment of the last vestiges of visualization of single events” is the abandonment of the last vestiges of Rutherford’s theory: the decree that makes the divorce final. All that we have left is what came originally from Planck, and since it is clear that some valid results of a mathematical nature have emanated from Bohr’s work and its subsequent extensions, this can be taken as a vindication of Bohr’s contention that Planck’s concept of the quantum should be applicable to atomic processes.
The new atomic theory that replaces the nuclear atom must therefore embody the quantum concept in some manner. Since this present discussion is intended only to indicate the general nature of such a theory, no attempt will be made to explore details, but it may be mentioned that the existing evidence points very strongly to the necessity of a major enlargement of the quantum concept: an extension of this idea drastic enough to quantize all motion. Only in this manner can we introduce numbers at a basic enough level to give us the “built-in” mathematical relations that we need in order to eliminate the necessity for ad hoc assumptions to supply the numerical values.