Atomic Structure 11/8/21

Science with Richard Bleil

An atom has a nucleus at the center (containing all of the atom’s protons and neutrons), with electrons somewhere surrounding it in constant motion.  This is fairly common knowledge, but let’s put this into some perspective.  Let us suppose that we can expand one hydrogen atom (the simplest atom, containing only one proton, no neutrons (unless we are speaking of deuterium or tritium which we will neglect in this discussion), and one electron (in its elemental form).  The electron travels so quickly and occupies a spherical space that would look to us like a round cloud.  If we expanded this atom to the point where the nucleus (the proton) is roughly the size of a basketball, then the electron would be approximately the size of a ping-pong ball, and it would most likely be found five and a half miles away.

Five and a half miles.

Yes, the study of chemistry can be said to be the study of almost nothing at all.  The atom is to a great extent empty, a fact that is not lost on writers of science fiction.  Every now and again there will be a television show, or a movie, that takes advantage of this fact, hypothesizing that if you can use great mental power to perfectly attune your body with that of a solid object (usually a wall), then you should be able to pass straight through that object.  I first saw this in the old original Superman television series from the ‘50’s when a great supervillain trapped himself into a lead cube too thick for even Superman to breach or see through until the statute of limitations expired on his crime.  Well, he’s doing the time anyway, but Superman passed through the walls, adjusted the clocks and he was released early enough to be charged for the crime.  In cinema, this was the foundation of the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, and more recently appeared as a minor subplot in The Men Who Stare at Goats. 

But it could never work.

See, despite what the science fiction brainiacs say (usually “and nobody knows what’s in that space), we do know what’s in that so-called empty space.  No, it’s not a particle of any kind, and no, it’s not dark matter.  It’s not a vacuum either, as the concept of the vacuum does not apply to volumes of space so low.  What it is filled with is an electrostatic field.  Yes, a “force field”, if you will (a tribute to a math professor with whom I worked).

I believe that people all too often write of the significance of force fields, especially science fiction writers who have people (or super people) passing through solid objects by “aligning their subatomic particles”.  People also write off force fields as so much science fiction tripe that cannot possibly be real, probably because of other fiction that creates force fields large and powerful enough to surround an entire starship and protect it in battle.  We are surrounded by force fields every day.  It’s the gravitational force field that will allow you to read the rest of this entry before flying off of the planet and into space. 

Electromagnetic force fields decay as a distance squared relationship from the source.  For example, the screen from which you are reading this is, indeed, emitting an electrostatic force field.  They’re getting better at reducing his all the time.  The old CRT monitors (for those who remember the three-dimensionally bulky beasts that would occupy a large chunk of prime desktop real estate) would create static friction, the crackling of which you could actually hear.  That’s a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there’s no electrostatic field at all.  But to say that they decay at a distance squared relationship means that the field is four times weaker at two inches from the screen than just one inch.  At four inches it’s one-sixteenth the strength.  It does not take much distance at all, even for the old bulky CRT screens, before this field becomes negligibly weak, but it never is zero.

So at a distance between an electron and a nucleus, that electrostatic field is powerful enough to keep the electrons in orbit and prevent them from flying off into space without some kind of external force.  It’s not unlike air being held to the earth through the action of gravity.  This gravitational force field that keeps the air close to the earth is the same force field that we feel.  Unlike gravitational force, however, electrostatic forces repel one another.  The electrons surrounding the atoms are all negatively charged, every single one of them, and these electrons surround every atom, and every molecule in the universe. 

Yes, every single one, including (but not limited to) the atoms and molecules in the palm of your hand, or the atoms and molecules of the desktop holding my keyboard as I type.  If I smack the desktop (frightening my cats), I’m actually never going to be able to actually touch the desk.  See, the top of the desk (or, more specifically, the atoms and molecules on top of the desk) are all surrounded by electrons, as are the atoms and molecules on my hand.  As I smack the desk, these same-charged subatomic particles will repel each other since like charges repel.  What we feel in our hand is the force of the electrons of the desk pushing away from the electrons in my hand. 

In a weird way, all touch is actually an illusion since it’s just these same charged electrostatic forces repelling one another on a sub-atomic level.  This means that, even if you could somehow magically defy Heisenberg and align your electrons, that electrostatic field will still be in place.  It’s not the particles that prevent you from walking through solid matter, but rather it’s the, well, force field.  If you will.

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