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Apologies to all if this has been asked before, I searched but was unable to find one similar.

This is a question that has been bugging me for a while that i haven't really been able to find a suitable answer for.

I am aware that the space between an atoms nucleus and its electron cloud is teeming with virtual particles that allow the exchange of energy that give electrons an assigned energy level or 'shell' but what bugs me is about the space in between atoms.

What is in between atoms? is it classifiable as a vacuum where nothing at all exists?

I would find it hard to believe that atoms are pushed right up against each other at all times due to repulsive charges on the nucleus acting upon any other.

I accept that the gap is unbelievably small but on the scale of atoms and electrons, how small are we talking? Is there even a gap at all? Do we know what is in between or is it unknown? is it a similar process to the virtual particles between nucleus and electrons?

It is to my limited understanding that when particles "collide" there is no physical interaction, rather an exchange of energy through virtual photons. Is that what exists in all of these gaps? a constant exchange of virtual energy that acts as a consistent repulsion between all atoms?

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while my question is most certainly related to those (indeed my reading of both led me to finally ask) i don't think either covered my particular issue in enough depth. The second one lends itself to the inner machinations of transfer between nucleus and cloud, whereas mine is more focusing on exchange between atom and atom in a non vacuum environment, vacuum was merely (incorrectly perhaps) tagged as i theorized the area between particles on earth might well be a vacuum –  RhysW Jan 11 '13 at 15:10
    
I should clarify what theorists mean by vacuum. Vacuum is full of fields! We say that it is not a vacuum if there are real particles (quantised excitations of a field carrying a definite energy). When there aren't any real particles present we call it vacuum, even though the fields are still there and the fields are still fluctuating (virtual particles). Vacuum is the state of lowest energy. –  Michael Brown Jan 11 '13 at 15:35
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The space between atoms depends very much on the medium you are talking about. In solids the typical distance between atoms is about the same as the size of the atoms themselves. In everyday gases at room temperature and pressure the distance between molecules is many times their size, and in deep space you can get densities as low as one proton per cubic centimetre!

You can get a rough idea of the average separation $\ell$ between atoms by using

$$ \ell \approx \left(\frac{m}{\rho}\right)^{1/3} $$

where $m$ is the mass of an atom and $\rho$ is the (mass) density of the material. This can be compared to the size of an atom, which for all elements is about the same at $\approx 10^{-10} - 10^{-9}\ \mathrm{m}$.

Space is full of fields like the electric and magnetic fields. You can think of certain types of "vibrations" of these fields as virtual particles, but the common view of modern physics is that the field picture is more fundamental. There are fields for all of the elementary particles, and the fields are constantly fluctuating due to quantum mechanics. You can think of temporary ripples in the fields as virtual particles, which are responsible for transmitting disturbances through space. Real particles are quantised excitations (or vibrations) in a field which propagate long distances.

Matt Strassler has gone to great lengths to explain this point of view in his popular articles.

Frederic Brünner brings up an important point about virtual particles. Physicists use an approximation called perturbation theory to do most of their calculations (because the calculations are really hard to do without making approximations). Virtual particles are a convenient way to organise these calculations, but you should not think of them as physical objects like real particles. In a sense virtual particles are misleading. What they really represent are rapid fluctuations of the fields (what I called ripples before). At large distances these fluctuations don't matter except when they average out to a smooth classical field. For the interactions between atoms, and even most of the interactions between electrons and nuclei, the classical field is all you need.

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Thanks, i find this to be a very comprehensive answer and i think i will definitely be subscribing to the linked blog. I do love me some particle physics. You're correct i should have specified my medium, i originally did not because i assumed only the gaps size would change rather than the gaps content. Would i be close to being correct then if i attempted to view each atom on a 2-d plane (for ease of understanding) surrounded by an irregular shape with an imaginary membrane like that of a cells. Where the irregular jelly shape is constantly warping and distorting as the area - continued –  RhysW Jan 11 '13 at 15:06
    
continued- of the shape denotes the 'influence area' of the various fields belonging to each particle. Where these fields dictate the fluctuations in energy transfer to and from other 'physical' entities? –  RhysW Jan 11 '13 at 15:07
    
@RhysW There is one field of each type. For example, there is one photon field (more commonly called the electro-magnetic field), one electron field, etc. that fill all of space; not a seperate field belonging to each particle. You can actually go a long way to understanding the physics without thinking about virtual particles. At very large distances (compared to $\approx10^{-13}m$) the net effect of all virtual photons is to create a classical electric field around charges (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulomb%27s_law). Like charges repel and opposite charges attract. cont.-- –  Michael Brown Jan 11 '13 at 15:21
    
cont. The fields produced by different particles simply add together, though since electrons and protons have opposite charges their fields have opposite signs and tend to cancel out. As a result the electric fields between atoms are very weak compared to the fields inside atoms, and the net force between atoms is a very weak residual of the original electrical force. Roughly speaking, atoms which are far apart attract each other (weakly) but atoms which are very close repel very strongly. This what enables many atoms to come together to form organised structures. –  Michael Brown Jan 11 '13 at 15:24
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@RhysW Frederic brings up an important point about virtual particles. Physicists use an approximation called perturbation theory to do most of their calculations (because the calculations are really hard to do without making approximations). Virtual particles are a convenient way to organise these calculations, but you should not think of them as physical objects like real particles. What they really represent are rapid fluctuations of the fields (what I called ripples before). At large distances these fluctuations don't matter except when they average out to a smooth classical field. –  Michael Brown Jan 11 '13 at 15:50
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I have thought about this question for quite some time. The theory that I highly believe in is about string theory. The theory states that the space in between subatomic particles are almost massless strings from type 2a string theory. These string have so little mass (roughly .83 x 10 to the -5 GeV) that they are undetectable. Of course this theory relies solely on string theory. Thank you for your time.

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Interesting, i've always wondered, what are these 'strings' made of, and then, what exists in the space between those –  RhysW Mar 8 '13 at 17:27
    
The FAQ is very down on "Pitches for your own personal theories or work". Also, please do not sign your posts--your usercard is appended automatically. –  dmckee Mar 8 '13 at 17:56
    
@RhysW I have always thought that the strings are so tightly interwoven that there is minimal if any space in between these so called strings. But it is interesting to think about it. Back to the theory, the space in between these atoms or quarks are these tightly interwoven strings. Once again they have such little mass that they are undetectable. –  Jack Moody Mar 8 '13 at 18:40
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This is a complete misunderstanding of string theory. –  Michael Brown Mar 9 '13 at 0:14
    
there are many understandings of string theory due to the many types. this is just one of the types. –  Jack Moody Mar 9 '13 at 16:39
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protected by Qmechanic Jun 16 '13 at 8:43

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