Ordinary matter, or the stuff we and everything around us is made of, consists largely of empty space. Even a rock is mostly empty space. This is because matter is made of atoms. An atom is a cloud of electrons orbiting around a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons. The nucleus contains more than 99.9 percent of the mass of an atom, yet it has a diameter of only 1/100,000 that of the electron cloud. The electrons themselves take up little space, but the pattern of their orbit defines the size of the atom, which is therefore 99.9999999999999% open space!
What we perceive as painfully solid when we bump against a rock is really a hurly-burly of electrons moving through empty space so fast that we can't see-or feel-the emptiness. What would matter look like if it weren't empty, if we could crush the electron cloud down to the size of the nucleus? Suppose we could generate a force strong enough to crush all the emptiness out of a rock roughly the size of a football stadium. The rock would be squeezed down to the size of a grain of sand and would still weigh 4 million tons!
Such extreme forces occur in nature when the central part of a massive star collapses to form a neutron star. The atoms are crushed completely, and the electrons are jammed inside the protons to form a star composed almost entirely of neutrons. The result is a tiny star that is like a gigantic nucleus and has no empty space. Neutron stars are strange and fascinating objects. They represent an extreme state of matter that physicists are eager to know more about. Yet, even if you could visit one, you would be well-advised to turn down the offer.
About the Author
Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center
The Chandra X-ray Observatory, previously known as the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, is a Flagship-class space telescope launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during STS-93 by NASA on July 23, 1999.