Chapter Nine — The Mighty Atom
A Short History of Nearly Everything – by Bill Bryson
Chapter 9 — The Mighty Atom
- The word ‘molecule’ means ‘little mass’ in Latin.
- At sea level, at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, one cubic centimeter of air (about the size of a sugar cube) will contain 45 billion billion molecules!
- Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and has been part of millions of organisms on it way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms (perhaps up to one billion) probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Kan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.
- Atoms go on practically forever. Nobody actually knows low long an atom can survive, but according to one scientific expert, it might be as long as 1035 years.
- Atoms are tiny — half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.
- How tiny are atoms? Imagine a line one millimeter long ( – ). Divide that line into 1000 equal parts. Each of those parts is a micron. This is the scale of microorganisms. A typical paramecium is about 2 microns wide, or 0.002 millimeters. If you wanted to see a paramecium swimming in a drop of water with your naked eye, you would have to enlarge the drop to about forty feet across. If you wanted to see the atoms in the same drop, you would have to make the drop fifteen miles across! The scale of an atom is one ten-millionth of a millimeter. One atom is to the width of a millimeter as the thickness of a sheet of paper is to the height of the Empire State Building.
- Atoms are three things — small, numerous, and indestructible. Also, all things are made from atoms, all things!
- One scientist said to Mr. Bryson that protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.
- Neutrons and protons occupy the atom’s nucleus. The nucleus of an atom is tiny – only one millionth of a billionth of the full volume of the atom – but fantastically dense, since it contains virtually all the atom’s mass. If an atom were expanded to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be only about the size of a fly (but that fly would outweigh the cathedral).
- When you sit on a chair, you are not actually touching the chair. You are levitating about it at the height of an angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimeter), your electrons and the chair’s electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy.
- Electrons interacting with a nucleus are not like planets orbiting a sun, but more like the blades of a spinning fan, managing to feil every bit of space in their orbits simultaneously. The critical difference is that the blades of a fan only seem to be everywhere at once — electrons truly are.
- We can know the path an electron takes as it moves through a space or we can know where it is at a given instant, but we cannot know both. Any attempt to measure one will unavoidably disturb the other. This isn’t a matter of simply needing more precise instruments — it is an immutable property of the universe. What this means in practice is that you can never predict where an electron will be at any given moment. You can only list its probability of being there.
- Particles have a quality known as spin, and according to quantum theory, the moment you determine the spin of one particle, its sister particle, no matter how far away, will immediately begin spinning in the opposite direction and at the same rate. This could be likened to having two identical billiard balls, one in Ohio and the other in Fiji, and the instant you sent one spinning, the other one would immediately spin in a contrary direction at precisely the same speed. This property was proven in 1997 when scientists sent photons seven miles in opposite directions and demonstrated that interfering with one provoked an instantaneous response in the other.
- The idea of ‘action at a distance’, that one particle can instantaneously influence another particle trillions of miles away, is a stark violation of the special theory of relativity. This theory decrees that nothing can outrace the speed of light, and yet here are physicists insisting that information (at the subatomic level) can do just that.
- There are two forces at work in atoms — the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. The strong force binds atoms together. It is what allows protons to bed down together in the nucleus. The weak force engages in more miscellaneous tasks, mostly controlling the rates of certain sorts of radioactive decay. The weak nuclear force, despite its name, is ten billion billion billion times stronger than gravity, and the strong nuclear force is stronger still. However, their influence reaches out to only about 1/100,000th of the diameter of an atom.
Click here to return to the ASHONE index