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There is no such thing as an atom

September 7, 2013

“What?”  You might ask.

So your teacher might tell you, cut a piece of apple into 2 halves. Take the right half and cut it into two halves again. Keep going and you’ll eventually come to a point where you can’t cut it any smaller. So out of a sudden, we all believe in Mr Lee (or Miss Lam), our Science teacher. That is more or less our first encounter with an atom (actually it will be like a molecule not an atom).

If we were brave, we could always ask more question “Why can’t we cut anymore?”, “Why must we reach a basic element when we do that?” Then maybe the teacher will be forced to tell you what experiments have been done by scientist that seemed to suggest the “Atom theory” or the “Atom model” of the sub-atomic world is true.  It could be a wave, or it could be a particle depending on how you want it to be.

Then the idea that every atom is nothing but a bunch of neutrons and protons stuck together (under a mysterious force) in a nucleus with equal number of electrons (much, much smaller) circling (or orbiting, if you like scientific words) around it. That number of electrons outside the nucleus has to cancel with the number of protons because they have equal and opposite charges. Knowing the number of protons/electrons will allow us to know what kind of atom it is.  Those who are familiar with the Periodic Table will suddenly get very excited and jump to this branch of science called Chemistry.

But this Niel Bohr’s model is actually wrong.  It’s true most of what’s inside an atom is “nothing-ness”, no air, no liquid, nothing. Why? Because air and liquid (and for that matter solid) is made up of atoms!  So how can anything be between the proton and the electron. Scientists have used Mathematics and more experiment to measure the size of these small tiny protons, neutrons and electrons. And they turn out to be very, very small, relative to the “size” of the atom itself.  Think of the earth as the electron and it is orbiting around the sun (as the nucleus), then think of the vacuum between the circle of space created by the Earth’s orbit. That is relatively how much nothing-ness we are talking about in each and every an atom.
Now another not so clever question will be:

“Is the atom hot or cold?”

“What colour is it?”,

“Is it soft or hard or like a jelly?”

The sensation of hot or cold is something at the macroscopic level.  At the microscopic level, it depends on how much “vibration” each atom (or molecule) has and how fast they are zigzagging.  Or how much kinetic energy it has.

The sensation of colour is one of light coming to our eyes at a specific frequency.  Light is made up of photons (packets of energy) that when hitting each atom (or even molecule) could send it flying off or even vibrate much much faster. So forget about it ever reflecting back to your eye to cause a sensation of colour.

And is it hard or soft? I won’t even try to answer that question.

So basically, we cannot see, hear, smell or feel what an atom is like. (无色声香味触法 Wu she sheng xiang wei chu fai. In fact, did I tell you Bohr’s model is wrong? The most accurate picture of an atom (which rarely do you see in books) is clouds of uncertainty. These particles are so small that every possible quantum effect is readily seen (pun intended).  Heisenberg uncertainty principle will tell you it is neither here, nor there.  Wave function will tell you there is a probability it is here and another certain probability it is there.  If you are willing to sacrifice the knowledge of its speed, you might find accuracy in the position and vice-versa.

Most people would think the quantum effect is out of this world and the wave/particle duality is too abstract to know and does not apply in our everyday (classical) world.  However, think about it, the Young’s double slit experiment is not hard to do in the kitchen to verify the wave-particle duality.  And it seems the Quantum computation in coming at least up to 3 qubits.  So the controversy which seems very far away from us to even ponder is coming to us today.

Konstantin Lukin in Techui tells how these Quantum Entanglement can be explained.  A famous Italian Physicist Anton Zeilinger wanted to know these answers so badly, he held a conference of the best Physicists with a bunch of Buddhist monks to explore the parallel and hopefully the answers.  These so called quantum effect that seemingly will not affect us, is not the topic of discussion because they do affect us classically.  But see how magic is performed using these knowledge.

So is there such a thing called an atom?  Well, go deeper and assuming quarks, maybe you’ll come up with a totally different theory.

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