|Distant spiral galaxy NGC4603 [Courtesy NASA]|
But recent research in physics makes it clear that things aren't really this simple. In fact, the situation is significantly more indistinct and unsettled than most realize. The world may consist of "bundles" of properties and relations, in ways that we can only dimly envision at the present time.
There are thought to be 1080 atoms in the visible universe, mostly hydrogen. However, the total number of elementary particles is at least 1086, mostly neutrinos and photons. For additional details on these fundamental particles, see [Elementary2013].
The "standard model" of physics is more than a collection of particles and forces. As it is formulated in quantum field theory terms, the notion of a particle is not clear-cut. To begin with, a particle does not have a well-defined, precise location. Instead there the probability of finding a given particle in a given position is given by a field, which in many cases extends far from the particle. This is most clearly seen in the "cloud" of electrons surrounding an atom -- we can only specify the probability of finding the electron in a certain position or at a certain level.
A related phenomenon is to consider a region that is a true vacuum, devoid of particles. But here again, quantum field theory predicts, and experiments confirm, that even a "vacuum" may result in clicks in a Geiger counter or other measurement device, as particles briefly flit in and out of existence. What's more, an observer at rest with the "vacuum" may see no particles, but for an observer accelerating past the chamber, he/she observes it bathed in a warm gas of particles. Does that "vacuum" have particles in it, or not?
Particles presumably have well-defined properties, such as energy, charge, spin, etc. But experiments show that two particles can be "entangled," so that, for instance, if one has an up spin, then the other must have a down spin, even though the particles are separated by many meters in distance. Here it is best to consider the system of the two particles as a unified system, not as two independent particles. See [Kuhlmann2013] for additional details and discussion.
But there are difficulties here as well. Quantum field theory does not describe the universe as permeated with discrete and/or independent fields. A point in space does not possess a physical quantity corresponding to a field. Instead, the field must be applied to a "state vector," which is not assigned to any specific location; it permeates all of the universe. See [Kuhlmann2013] for additional details and discussion.
Given these difficulties, a growing number of physicists are postulating ever-more-arcane structures for the universe. One of these is "structures," a theory that postulates that the universe, at base, consists only of relations between particles, forces and fields. A second alternative posits that we have only "bundles" of properties, and not more fundamental entities. But neither of these are considered fully satisfactory alternatives to current physical theories [Kuhlmann2013].
Many physicist simply refuse to be sidetracked by these issues, and adopt what is often called an "instrumentalist" approach. They point out, quite correctly, that in the current "standard model" we have a theory that can predict, with breathtaking precision, essentially every experiment involving particles and forces. As a single example, the numerical value of the magnetic dipole moment of the electron (in certain units), calculated from the present-day standard model (in particular, from the theory of quantum electrodynamics) on one hand, and calculated from best available experimental measurements on the other hand, are [Sokal1998, pg. 57]:
Theoretical: 1.001159652201 (plus or minus 30 in the last two digits)
Experimental: 1.001159652188 (plus or minus 4 in the last two digits)
This is astonishing level of agreement -- better than one part in one billion -- dramatically confirming the predictive accuracy of the relevant scientific theory.
In any event, it is clear that these difficulties are hardly cause for any of the traditional opponents of modern science to rejoice. Yes, there are unanswered questions in modern physics, even at the most fundamental levels. But there are also unanswered questions even in areas of science that one would think are extremely well established, such as gravitational physics [Grossman2012a] and reproductive biology [Ridley1995]. Thus claims by creationists, for instance, that unknowns in the fundamental physics arena "prove" that scientists do not have all the answers are only met with puzzled stares by real research scientists. Of course scientists do not have all the answers -- exploring unknown, unanswered questions is what science is all about.
For additional discussion, see
What is science?,