Can Things Actually Touch Each Other?
Myth

Objects can actually touch each other (they can come into direct contact with each other with no space in between).

Can Two Things Ever Touch?

Things never touch because everything is made of atoms. Atoms contain electrons and electrons repel each other. This is basic physics. What we call touching is our brain interpreting the electromagnetic force between atoms created by electron repulsion. Thus, whether or not two things can or cannot touch depends on what we mean by touch. This is explained in detail below. [1][2][3]

  • All matter is made of atoms. Atoms contain electrons.
  • Electrons are negatively charged and they push away from each other when they get close enough (electron repulsion).
  • Our brains perceive the electromagnetic force created by electron repulsion as “touching” (it’s actually more like hovering at 10^-8 meters).
  • If two particles actually touched it would create a nuclear reaction.
  • The only things in the universe that can actually occupy the same space are bosons (like the photon).

A video explaining why two things never “touch”.

TIP: Smaller quantum particles like quarks also repel, but since electrons are the main entity in this process, we will focus on them here. You can look at our elementary particles page for more information on the smaller particles, or check out the Pauli exclusion principle which shows that identical “fermions” (matter particles) can’t occupy the same space (and thus helps to explain aspects of “the touching issue” in more technical terms).[3]

TIP: The electron is a fermion. All matter is comprised of fermions.

How Do Atoms Work?

Before we can understand why nothing actually “touches,” we have to take a quick look at how atoms work.

In simple terms, atoms are mostly empty space. At the center of that empty space is a tiny nucleus containing almost all the mass of an atom, like a marble in an empty soccer stadium. Surrounding the mass of the nucleus are little packets of negatively charged energy called electrons, which are held in place by electromagnetic force like a magnet.

In general, electrons have negative charges and protons have positive charges; in nature particles with a negative charge always repel each other, and those with opposite charges always attract.

TIP: Electrons aren’t tiny stationary dots in planet-like orbit around the nucleus (like the old model of an electron might suggest). Rather, electrons surrounding an atom exist in a state of probability (quantum superposition), moving at fractions of light speed (about 1% of light speed). This creates an “electron cloud.” Each electron in an atom orbits a nucleus at about 1% of light speed (thus creating a cloud of probable and actual locations). Learn more about how electrons work in atoms.

TIP: The concept of “charge” is central to particle physics. See elementary particles for a deeper understanding of charge.

Electron Repulsion

Particles, in general, are attracted to particles with an opposite charge, and they repel particles with a similar charge. Electrons are naturally attracted to protons but repelled by similarly charged electrons. This fundamental behavior of particles (including electrons) prevents them from ever coming in direct contact with each other.

Instead of coming into direct contact, the electrons and other particles have electromagnetic force fields that interact with each other and cause repulsion and attraction.

ALTERNATIVE VIEW: The video below argues that the point at which attraction and repulsion are balanced should be considered “contact.” On this page we state whether or not two things can touch (AKA make contact) depends on our definition of touch. The counter argument in the video paired with the argument on this page helps show why this all does somewhat depend on what we mean by the term “touch.”

Do Atoms Ever Touch?

Going into detail: Everything in the universe is massless energy particles interacting with each other. There isn’t really anything to touch, even electrons are made of massless energy particles. We know that splitting an atom creates a lot of energy. That is because there is a lot of pure energy bound in “matter” as “mass.” This same intense power in a small space is essentially why nothing ever actually touches. And that is only the tip of the mass-energy iceberg.

How To Define Touch?

We know that we don’t touch things, we simply get 10^-8 meters close. However, we also know that when we dig a little deeper into the way things actually work, energy is both a particle and a wave. Or rather, a particle is an excited state in a wave-like field.

Since particles are fields all we are really saying is that fields can touch, but the excited particle states can’t. Electron fields overlap, but their particles don’t.

Is this field touching actually touching? Should we just redefine “touching” to include forces acting on each other? If we do, then we can argue that there is lots of touching going on (and we could say that when two magnets repel, they are touching)!

Since particles never touch but fields do act on each other, do we simply need to throw out the idea of actual physical touch, and realize that touch is relative to perspective? Or should we focus more on the fact that everything is composed of energy fields at its core? These are good questions.[3]

A video questioning if it is simply a matter of needing to redefine the concept of “touch”.

Examples of Electron Repulsion in Real Life

Let’s look at two every day life examples of electron repulsion in the real world. First, a simple example with no explanation, then a more complex example of electron repulsion.

The “We Already Have Hover-boards” Example

When the atoms in your shoes touch the atoms the floor they aren’t actually touching. Rather the electrons in your shoe’s atoms are repelling the electrons in the floor’s atoms. The same works for the chair you may be sitting on, or that one wheeled “hover-board” that is only really hovering on an atomic level.

The takeaway You are currently floating at an extremely small distance (about 10^-8 meters) above the surface that you think you are standing or sitting on.

“Hand Clap” Example

In real life, two physical systems of particles can never touch because the particles they are made from can never touch. Luckily things don’t need to actually “touch”. In the physical universe, objects quantize to the Planck length and emit fields. If you try to clap your hands, the space between your hands get’s infinitesimally smaller, but instead of your hands never moving they just move toward each other in Planck-length frames. Quantum particles can exist in a state of super position and jump frames. When your hands get close enough, the electrons in your hands repel each other. Electron repulsion is a type of electromagnetic effect.

Your hands have never literally touched, but your clapping action has been completed despite “the infinite” space. That is the way that mathematics works within our physical universe. The Energy between two hands is exchanged resulting in a clap. The energy used to perform the action has shaved a tiny bit off the total mass of the system as mass-energy was used for clapping. A  small amount of energy has even escaped as a sound wave.

Why Do We Feel We Can Touch Things?

We feel we can touch things because the electromagnetic force of electrons pushing on each other creates a sensation that tells our brain we are touching something. Literally, the sensation of touch is our brain interpreting the electromagnetic field created by electron repulsion. The sensation we get depends on the type of atoms that form the matter we are touching (i.e. how the molecules and elements are structured).

Why Do Different Things Feel Different When We Touch Them?

Different things feel different because of the way our brain interprets their atomic structure. It works like this:

The different types of atoms that make up the periodic table elements hold different amounts of electrons (based on their proton number). When different atoms with different electrons bind together with other atoms it creates the matter we are familiar with. When we touch different types of matter we feel friction based on the atomic structure of the matter (it’s mass, density, evenness, etc). The friction we feel becomes an electrical signal in our neurons and that signal is interpreted by our brain as sensation.

All sensations related to touch, including hot, cold, pain, and pleasure are a reaction to the atomic structure of the matter we are “touching”. We can store these sensations as sensory memories helping us to remember not to touch a hot stove, but to jump right in to a warm bath.

What if Two Things Actually Touched?

When two particles touch they create nuclear fusion or fission (depending upon what happens when they touch). In other words, two things actually touching would cause a nuclear reaction. This is explained by E=mc2. So the bottom line, forces can be exchanged and fields can overlap, but two things can never touch.



Conclusion

Whether or not two things can truly touch depends more on the definition of touch than it does on the reality: all particles are separated by electromagnetic force.


References

  1. Why Physics Says You Can Never Actually Touch Anything:“. Fromquarkstoquasars.com. Retrieved Oct 31, 2015.
  2. What does it mean for two objects to touch?“. Physics.stackexchange.com. Retrieved Oct 31, 2015.
  3. Pauli exclusion principle“. wikipedia.org. Retrieved Feb, 19. 2016.


"Things Can Actually Touch Each Other" is tagged with: Energy, Quantum Mechanics, Senses, Space, Theoretical Physics


Vote Fact or Myth: "Things Can Actually Touch Each Other"

Your Vote: {{ voteModel || 'no vote' | uppercase }}

holly on

i think it is a myth

Trent on

You proved it!

Jon on

This is all common knowledge.
If you think it’s a myth… do some more research.
I know I said this twice, three times now; but I only voted once.

Bill on

Hogwash! The atoms don’t touch. So what. The energy we create touches therefore we touch! To me physics is so full of it. A student in physics at my work told me the other day that heat is energy and cold is not energy or it is the lack of energy. What crock. It is still energy just a lower state of energy.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Interesting perspective. We made sure to include the idea that “it depends on your definition of touching”.

At a 101 level it is interesting to note that what we think of as solid mass is really fairly empty and that touch isn’t what it seems like. It is also interesting to note how this relates to Pauli exclusion and quantum physics, energy fields, and quantization. etc.

And that is what this page is about, opening that door. Now should we walk away with the conclusion that “things don’t touch” or a more complex idea about the way energy actually works? That is the question.

Thank you for the comment.

Gordon on

IT is a fact alright…but most are so fixed IN the world that they are like fish in water–they don’t know they are wet (that is an intelligent fish might). SO the next big question might lead to; then if it is all mostly fields and electromagnetism and too information…then what’s to say we are not in some strange and totally weird simulation? Max Tegmark has written books on such (think he is a professor at MIT?). Arthur Eddington (look him up) made the comment once that, ‘the world is stranger than you suppose…’ then corrected himself and said, ‘…no, it is stranger than you CAN suppose!’ If you made a list of the ‘strange’ things in the world–with just some basic intelligence you might be amazed just how long the list is…!

Lawry Miller on

Can you explain how conception works then because I get the feeling that on a biological level conception defies this concept that nothing actually touches

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Literal conception? Well the sperm and egg are both matter, i.e. they are made of composite particles with fermions (like electrons and quarks) like everything else in the universe, and like with all composite particles there is no literal touching going on.

If you think of how magnets repel each other, the force of both magnets act on each other, but they don’t actually touch. It works like that.

Consider:
1. The Pauli Exclusion Principle says, two identical fermions (matter particles) can’t occupy the same quantum state.
2. So any composite object with fermions (all matter) can’t touch…
4. With that said, in atoms, electrons specifically are constantly repelling each other and thus it is mostly electron repulsion that explains why matter can’t touch.

In other words, not only are no identical fermions touching on a sub-atomic level, all things made from fermions also can’t touch (mostly due to electron repulsion).

//factmyth.com/factoids/there-are-four-fundamental-forces/
//factmyth.com/factoids/two-identical-things-cant-occupy-the-same-space/

nonsense on

Who told you that they need to occupy the same space to touch? you dumb
//youtu.be/P0TNJrTlbBQ

and also your view of particles is wrong

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I don’t disagree with the arguments made in the video, he doesn’t refute what I say, he sort of reframes it to define contact as when attraction and repulsion are balanced. If those are our terms, then under those terms we can say two particles can “make contact.”

That said, I feel like the rest of your argument was a little lackluster. You didn’t offer specifics or supporting arguments. I wasn’t saying that “occupying the same space was the same as touching” I was trying to illustrate the idea that Pauli exclusion helps to understand why two particles can’t “touch”… the idea that they can’t occupy the same space and the idea that they can’t literally touch each other are similar ideas.

I’m open to being wrong, but to correct something I would need more specific feedback. Good video though.

Trey on

False

Alex🤓 🐨 on
Doesn't beleive this myth.

Myth

deeznuts on
Supports this as a Fact.

So that’s why matter and antimatter destroy each other, because they actually touch because the anti-electron (+1 charge) attracts the electron (-1 charge)

Jennifer on
Supports this as a Fact.

this is so bazaar!

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Physics can get really strange.

Rafael on
Supports this as a Fact.

It is a fact, they do touch, I know I can argue about it

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I think arguments can be made either way, it is why the first paragraph says “Thus, whether or not two things can or cannot touch depends on what we mean by touch.”

Lysa on

I completely agree with this statement/ hypothesis how ever how are we able to pick up objects if we can not physically touch others electrons? Please reply

Penelope on
Doesn't beleive this myth.

I think we’re just overthinking this. Who cares if we actually touch or not? I can feel it, so I don’t care what else is going on if things seem to be touching.

Jefferey on

No they do not touch

Catherine on

Question please someone answer.What about when are body touches water or is soaking in it . Do our atoms touch the water atoms ? £

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

In my understanding:

In the way described, where “things don’t touch,” this would apply two any two things, including water and our bodies. As you can see from the article and the comments other people would say “but that is touching.”

I think this article explains it well (//wtamu.edu/~cbaird/sq/2013/04/16/do-atoms-ever-actually-touch-each-other/). It is the case for any two objects, including atoms that:

The answer depends on what you mean by “touch”. There are three possible meanings of touch at the atomic level: 1) two objects influence each other, 2) two objects influence each other significantly, or 3) two objects reside in the exact same location.

Two objects cannot reside in the same exact location, but two objects can influence each other. So if we mean 1 or 2, then yes, if we mean 3, then no.

So to your point: Our atoms don’t ever reside in the same exact location as the water atoms when our body touches water, but they do influence each other… and that influence helps explain why your fingers prune up. Our finger atoms are responding to the water atoms essentially, there is influence from the close proximity that allows for the sharing of electrons.

This might article might help shed some light on what happens when atoms are close together: //www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-exactly-happens-on-a/

Noel on
Doesn't beleive this myth.

Why do I leave a fingerprint on glass if this is the case.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I believe the simple answer is the same as why our fingers get wrinkly in the water, things get close enough to effect each other and trade particles, but the particles never literally touch.