I was just thinking of the book you’re reading on quantum physics, and postulating how particle physics could relate to the social world, when I remembered you joking that you didn’t want your molecules intermingling with those of certain other people. I understand, but you can rest easy—in a very real sense, we never touch anything. When reduced to the quantum level, the very act of touching is electromagnetic repulsion. Surrounding the nucleus of every atom in our bodies is a sphere of negatively charged electrons orbiting at near light speed. Since they’re orbiting so fast around such an extraordinarily small space, the electrons create an impenetrable sphere, sort of like an elite bodyguard of soldiers that will never allow an outsider to touch or pass through. So when we touch someone or feel the air on our face, all we’re really feeling is the electrical repulsion of other electrons. And whatever we feel, such as softness or denseness, results only from the number of electrons occupying a given space. Hydrogen has one electron, so there’s little repulsion; iron has fifty-six, so there’s much repulsion. And whatever we feel as heat is merely a function of the frequency of atoms or molecules colliding with the molecules on our skin. The more they collide, the warmer the substance feels. Again, nothing is touching—only electron shells repelling other electron shells—negative versus negative. So if your book says that with every breath we take we’re recycling oxygen atoms once used by Socrates or Hitler, that’s true, but you can take solace in the fact that nothing is touching.
Conversely, when we feel the warmth of a loved one’s embrace, we can still enjoy the illusion that we are touching them.