On matters of matter

My mother was of the view that one kilo of wheat gave a lot more flour than a kilo of ready-to-use packet. My patient arguments went in vain and, of course, the kitchen scale was not correct.

My six year old granddaughter Sharada is no different. “You get a lot more stuff in cotton candy than the spoon of sugar it comes from. Every small piece of candy wool you see there comes from that sugar,” I said. “Then why is the candy very big, and the sugar so small?” “You and other little girls sit in 1D. When you all go to play in the ground, you are all still from 1D, but spread out in the ground at a distance from each other. Similarly, the same sweet particles have gone away from class 1D and are far away from each other now. But the group is still 1D or one spoon of sugar.’

She looked at the cotton candy again, “So there is air inside candy, but in a spoon of sugar there is no air, there is no nothing.” “But inside a sugar grain also there is emptiness. They do have particles inside called protons, neutrons and electrons. Between them, they have lots of free space,” I said.

“Why don’t you remove the free space? See, I can make the cotton candy small.” She demonstrated by squeezing some portion of the cotton candy to a small pinch. “Yes,” I agreed, “Like your classmates can all sit closer or like when you hug mummy.” “Like at times mummy and daddy…” She did not complete the sentence and blushed with hee eyes lowered. I allowed that to pass.

“But sometimes, people want distance among themselves, especially when they are not friends, much worse if they are enemies,” I said, before catching myself. “Enemy is not the correct word. Let us say they just do not want to be together,” I managed the situation, having secretly accepted defeat for my inability to understand, let alone convey the simple meaning of positive and negative charges to her. She had told me once, there were no negative apples. Zero apple, yes, but no negative apple.

“Back to emptiness,” she was persistent. She wanted to know. “But if you remove emptiness, how much can you compress?” “Actually, all the protons and neutrons in the world will form the size of an orange if they can be put together,” I explained. “Is there emptiness in that orange now?” she floored me straight.

If space is sparsely filled with solids, liquids and gas, and they in turn are sparsely filled by crystals, molecules and atoms, and atoms in turn sparsely filled by nucleus and its components leading down to sub nuclear particles till Higgs boson, as on date, are they solid finally? Is that the limit? How dense is that?

Life was simpler before we invented microscope. Now, we are not able to comprehend anything in the deepest minuscule without gaps and emptiness in between. We run into trouble either way, whether we look up and see the sky and its infinity, sparsely filled with stars and planets, or look down into the sparsely filled micro-cosmos and matter itself.

Can I prepare Sharada to keep her mind open on these and allow a lifetime of contemplation? Is that good enough?

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