Technically, I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. However, there are probably people teaching physics who will view what I’m saying here as heretical. I don’t think it is – it’s just a re-framing of statements made by other physicists such as Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War, and Brian Green, The Frabric of the Cosmos. I’m currently reading Michio Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos, which was the muse for this post.
Why does the Earth orbit the Sun? Most will say this is due to the pull of the Sun on the Earth (gravity). Einstein’s world-changing idea was to explain that it isn’t the Sun tugging on the Earth, per se, but rather it was caused by the Sun deforming spacetime, and the Earth’s mass, having a velocity and trying to maintain a straight line path, is being diverted by the curved spacetime. I’d like to go a step or two further in breaking down the summary-analogies we use to understand what’s happening.
Quantum Mechanics has shown us that there’s no such thing as matter. Everything that comprises the Earth is a wave. What we sense as mass is simply the level of interaction with the Higgs field. What we like to think of as particles are actually nebulous probability waves that have no specific location in spacetime – and they routinely tunnel – almost magically teleport – through barriers. In fact, as Feynman taught us, even when an electron makes a “quantum leap” from one orbital to another orbital inside an atom, it isn’t possible for that electron to accomplish the feat via a gradual change in position. What actually happens is:
- the energy that is allowing the electron to “leap” induces the spontaneous creation of a positron
- the positron and electron annihilate each other
- the combined energy of the annihilation induces the spontaneous creation of a seemingly new electron in the new orbital.
The positron here is an example of what are now called “virtual particles” – particles that pop in and out of existence all the time, and amazingly account for most of the “mass” of the matter we think we are comprised of. The process of step 1 thru 3 is also an example of “tunneling.”
Even more amazingly, those electrons and positrons are, again, not matter – they aren’t, actually, particles. They are waves. Probability waves, to be more accurate. And there is no limit to the extent of their probability waves – the force of gravity induced by an electron – though impossibly small – is still not zero, even at a distance of a trillion light years. Likewise, there is always a non-zero chance that an electron can spontaneously teleport – tunnel – to the other side of the moon, Jupiter, galaxy, or universe. The probability is very, very small, but it is never zero. And the smaller the teleport distance, the more likely it is. At lengths near the size of atoms, the probability of electron teleportation becomes so reliable that we build electronic circuits that rely on billions and billions of such teleportation events taking place every second.
So given all that, let me ask again, why does the Earth orbit the Sun?
Think of the Earth and Sun as agglomerations of trillions and trillions of “particles” – and by “particle,” I mean fuzzy, spinning, probability wave balls – like little spinning tornadoes that are spherical and have no boundaries – their spin and presence just becomes increasingly nebulous the further away from the particle you look. The “gravity wells” (often depicted as a funnel) of the Sun and Earth are actually the density of the sum of the presence of all these fuzzy, spinning balls that comprise each astronomical body.
Don’t imagine that electron tunneling is something that happens once every now and then, and mainly only on small scales. Imagine how many electrons comprise the “permanent” mass of the Earth, and then imagine how many additional electrons merely have a relatively plausible probability of tunneling to the location where the Earth is – or will be – from moment to moment. Given that vast quantity, the amazing reality falls into shape.
The Earth orbits the Sun not because of some intangible thing called gravity, or a spacetime funnel-shape. The Earth orbits the Sun because the probability (and therefore frequency) of tunneling events (all fundamental particles, not just electrons) on the Sun-side of the Earth’s path is lower than the number on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. The reason this is the case is that the Sun is also comprised of these fuzzy, spinning probability-wave balls (let’s call them “fuzzies”), and there is a slightly lower chance that the Sun’s fuzzies will tunnel to a location that is just outside the Earth’s orbit than a location that is just inside the Earth’s orbit. But tunneling events must result in an arrival into an acceptable location – ie, energy must be conserved, on the whole. This means that there are more “available tunneling locations” on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, as opposed to the Sun-side of the Earth.
You might think that this means the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun is like a “vacuum” – or at least more of vacuum than the Sun-side. However, that’s not how it works. What it results in is more (successful) tunneling events on the non-Sun-side, and thus a faster orbital speed on the non-Sun-side than on the Sun-side. The difference in the quantity of events is small – the diameter of the Earth is about 13,000 km, which is about 0.01% the distance to the Sun – but so also is the deviation from a straight line path that the Earth experiences. The “g-force” we (and the Earth) experience from the acceleration caused by the Sun is astonishingly small, despite the fact that it induces our planet into a circular path each a year.
If you remember the “lawnmower” analogy often used when teaching diffraction in beginning physics courses you can see why I called this “Probability Wave Diffraction.” The analogy goes like this: while pushing a lawnmower from a smooth concrete surface to a grass surface, the transition causes more resistance on the lawnmower wheels that are rolling on the grass, causing the lawnmower to turn slightly as it transitions onto the grass, unless you approach the grass at a 90 degree angle, or the person pushing the lawnmower compensates for this torque. The really important part of this analogy – or any description of wave diffraction – is that the cause is due to unequal (propagation) speeds on various parts of the wave or waves.
A simpler view of the Earth orbiting could simply say that, yes, the Earth is comprised of wave-particles, and the spacetime’s funnel shape means that all these wave-particles are traversing a spacetime gradient, and this is what causes the orbital path to deviate from a straight-line trajectory. Specifically, the passage of time is slower at the Earth’s Sun-side than on its opposite-Sun-side, and this differential time-dilation is the true cause of the circular path.
That’s certainly valid – and perhaps it is a contributing factor that I should include in the “tunneling” explanation. However, the time dilation means fewer tunneling events. Also, while the illusion that “particles” traverse linear paths as they travel, what Quantum Mechanics ultimately taught us is that the EPR paper is not valid – particles do not have an independent existence between points of interaction. That is, particles do not “travel in a straight-line” with a definite velocity and known points of interaction – else Heisenberg Uncertainty would be violated. The reality we are living in is that all fundamental particles are, actually, probability waves that tunnel from point to point – even when traveling a straight-line, apparently.
So what is “Tunneling Competition”? This is the term I’m using to try to illustrate the effect caused when multiple particles have the opportunity to tunnel to a particular point in space. The greater the probability that some particle will tunnel to a point in space – from anywhere – the less likely some additional particle will be able to tunnel there, as a consequence of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The amazing thing is that this mere probability of tunneling (or not) exerts a force in the macro world we’re used to.
A final note: there’s one part of this description I know is very uncertain – the fact that the Pauli Exclusion principle (and so the force arising from tunneling competition) only affects fermions, like elections, but not bosons, such as He4. But He4 is comprised of 4 electrons. The question I still have is how, exactly, does a He4 atom move through space? We know it is a collection of probability waves. My intuition is that despite being a boson, its actual motion through spacetime is the jerky, uncertain tunneling of simpler particles like lone electrons – the kind of motion that leaves particles with mere probabilistic positions and velocities inbetween interactions. If so, it seems the best, most detailed, and accurate way of describing the motion of bodies – even astronomical bodies – is via an agglomeration of “fuzzies,” and the forces they feel arise from tunneling competition and the changes in tunneling probabilities caused by probability wave diffraction of their own probability waves and their neighbors.
For doubters, let me just pose this question to kick-start your imaginations: calculate the probability that the Earth will suddenly lose its orbital velocity. Like calculating the probability that a car will pass through a wall, the probability is not zero. It is astonishingly small – but it is not zero.