Matter in Historical Perspective

This artist's animation shows a celestial body about the size of our moon slamming at great speed into a body the size of Mercury.

Reference: Disturbance Theory


Historically, there has been confusion between matter and emptiness because it is difficult to conceive of emptiness. Matter is substance. Emptiness is absence of substance. It is impossible to visualize absence of something.

Aristotle viewed things as made of matter. To him, matter and thought were complementary principles.

Later Descartes argued that the inherent properties of bodies were limited to extension, and the so-called secondary qualities, like color, were only products of human perception. Thus, he conceived of matter as a thing in itself that was independent of thought. He arbitrarily postulated matter to be some abstract, mathematical substance that occupies space.

Newton developed Descartes’ notion of matter by attributing to it the intrinsic properties of extension, hardness, impenetrability, mobility, and inertia. To him, “secondary” qualities, such as color or taste, were those that were not amenable to mathematical description. Newton was, however, troubled by the notion of gravity as “action at a distance.”

Einstein then explained “action at a distance” by developing Faraday’s concept of field. He made a critical summary of the development of his ideas in a paper Relativity & Problem of Space [1] near the end of his life.

This paper explain the following among other things.

  • The electromagnetic field is a substance more basic than matter.
  • The concept of space is derived from the extensions of substance.

The Disturbance Theory develops these concepts further.


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