by Paul J. Dejillas, Ph.D.
The inside of an atom can now be explored in the laboratory of the physicists using gigantic and powerful machines called particle accelerators or atom smashers. These machines are huge, circular tube extending for some miles in circumference, inside which subatomic particles are accelerated at velocities close to the speed of light. One such accelerator is the one at Fermilab located near Batavia, Illinois, the circumference of which extends four miles. Fermilab used to be known as the highest particle collider in the world. Another such machine is the one housed at CERN (for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland. Other atom-smashing laboratories can now be found in Russia, Germany, and Japan.
Today, physicists study the structure and properties of atomic and sub-atomic particles in these high-speed accelerators, where selected particles are made to circle the tube in opposite directions and made to collide with each other. Upon impact, scientists are able to see a kaleidoscope of bright lights amidst a landscape of darkness, appearing and disappearing, exhibiting patterns, while giving births to new particles, which all become objects of the scientists’ study.
And what have they discovered? What is it like to be in the world of atoms? Is the atomic, or quantum, world operates by the same laws that direct the macro realm?
The World of Atoms
The atom was discovered in 1803 by English physicist, chemist, and meteorologist John Dalton (1766-1844); by then nothing much had been about about the structure of the atom, much less the properties, except the idea that atoms can form elements having different sizes and mass. The prevailing theory was that atom can't be created, divided, or destroyed. By 1933, however, the atom became to be known to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Not only this, its structure and properties were also discovered. The size of an atom’s diameter is about 10-11 (that's 11 zeros to the left including the zero after the decimal place, or 0.00000000001). This is less than two billionths of an inch. This diameter is so tiny that it is almost inconceivable, and also almost impossible, for an ordinary measuring instrument to see. But this is not yet enough.
The first known subatomic particle was the electron, which was discovered by John Joseph Thompson in 1897 and known later to measure about 9.1x10-17 of a meter. The proton was discovered by Ernest Rutherford in 1918; its size was known later to be about 1.11x10-15 m., or about 1,875 more massive than the electron. The neutron was discovered much later in 1932 by James Chadwick, and was estimated to be about the same size of the proton. The two, protons and neutrons, are also called nucleons, which, together, form the nucleus of the atom that measure about 10-13 cm, or 100,000 times smaller than the whole atom. Nonetheless, the nucleus is the biggest mass inside an atom. But it goes without saying that of the three atomic particles, the electron is the smallest.
At this stage, you must have been already aware that we are entering the world of the tinniest and the smallest, where what we experience are sporadic outbursts of lights and energies emitted by the electrons, for example. We are dealing with very tiny particles that are almost undetectable by ordinary measuring instruments. Scientists are able to detect their presence mainly because of the light that they sporadically emit. Electrons emit light as it whirls around the nucleus and as they jump from one state of orbit to the other. Without these continually appearing and vanishing lights, everything is pitched dark, and we have to make use, no longer of our ordinary five physical senses, but our “other” senses, whatever they are, in order to know, detect, “see,” “feel,” “touch,” “hear,” and “taste” what is going on around inside an already tiny atom.
Yet, incomprehensible as this might be and, as if this is not yet enough to the incredulous minds, physicists are even telling us that 99.99 percent of an atom is empty space within which its sub-particles move about and travel at great velocities and distances. There is almost limitless space for subatomic particles to move around endlessly. From the macroscopic perspective, however, this so-called “limitless” space and distances is simply too squeezy and constricting for us who are more comfortable with our four-dimensional space-time reality.
Particles react to confinement by whirling around at varying speeds; the tighter the confinement, the greater the velocities become. Electrons orbit around the nucleus at a speed of around 600 miles per second. But since protons and neutrons are compressed in a much tighter compartment, they travel within the nucleus at an almost incredible speed of 40,000 miles per second. This is why the nuclear force is much stronger than the atomic force.
But if subatomic particles are tigthly squeezed into such a tiny particle we call atom, why don't they collide with each other? Why do the electrons not collide with the nucleus? Why do the protons and neutrons inside the nucleus remain in their confinement without colliding with each other. First, this is because these particles are regulated by forces that keeps them within their assigned orbits or places. Physicists have discovered that electrons are governed by the force of electromagnetism, while the protons and neutrons are governed by what scientists call a strong nuclear force that is responsible for keeping them with their nuclear confinement. We will discuss more on these forces later elsewhere.
Then, there is that finding that these subatomic forces carry electrical charges with them. Electrons, for example, are negatively charged, while protons carry a positive electrical charge; and, we learn that in electricity like charges repeal each other, while unlike charges attract each other. This is very much different from our classical, macroscopic reasoning; we say that "birds of the same feather flock together." At the atomic level, the attraction of the electrons and the nucleus does not come from the fact that they have the same electrical charges. On the contrary, it is their opposite electrical charges that keep them together, without colliding one another. The electrons are, so to say, destined to be in their properly designated orbits around the central nucleus.
But what about the nuclear particles of proton and neutron? Does this mean that if the proton has a positive charge, its partner neuron also carries with it a positive charge in order for the entire nucleus to be positive? Well, yes and no (another strange feature of the quantum world).
In the 1920s, Rutherford broached the idea that neutrons are chargeless, an idea, which was found out to be so experimentally in 1932. What is amazing, but nonetheless intriguing, is that the chargeless neutron, as advanced by Prout, can also be either neutral or can have a positively electrical charge. But, the two together, also called nucleons, are positively charged. Capra observed that protons and neutrons are not entirely different kinds of particles, but two different electrical states. In effect, "protons can turn into neutrons by losing their positive charge, and neutrons can turn into protons by acquiring it" (Capra, 1977:153). The negative electron and positive nucleus can thus coexist with each other harmoniously in the same region of space inside the atom, but with their respective electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces keeping them at bay in their designate region of space.
Another observation we must have experienced in the atomic world is that we begin to experience that at the tinniest level, matter can manifest themselves not only as solid particles but can also manifest as dynamic electrical charges, which appear to an observing physicist in the form of lights and patterns, travelling or moving around their respective confinements restlessly as waves.
If you have been following closely, already at this depth of our exploration into the world of atoms, you must have been feeling already a bit dazed and overwhelmed by all this information. You must have observed yourself going farther and farther away from the physical nature of matter, away from your sensory experiences, and feeling like entering a dreamland, where everything that takes place seems strange, paradoxical, weird, and other such events usually happening only in science-fiction movies. Things appearing or disappearing, events occurring or about to occur, as well as the behavior exhibited by these tiny particles in the atomic world defy logic, common sense, and causality, all of which form the foundation of our classical, macroscopic view of ourselves and reality. An atom could just suddenly appear before us, pass through us, and suddenly disappear without our noticing it.
Indeed, scientists themselves believe that by entering the atomic world, we are in effect crossing over to a subtle realm, a realm of energy, where even our concept of time and space become irrelevant and meaningless. Some particle physicists go to the extent that entering the quantum world is "experiencing" the world of the mysterious, the paranormal, the spiritual, and the divine.
What made physicists to espouse this view is the fundamental discovery at the atomic level that matter possesses a dual nature, i.e., matter is both wave and particle at the same time. We shall discuss more on this in the subsequent section below with the view of examining how this fundamental discovery impacts on our behavior as well as on our view of ourselves and reality.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the radiations that appeared when electrons were accelerated by an electric field in a cathode-ray tube, and which Roentgen observed in 1895 and called x-rays, were in fact found out by Max von Laue in 1912 to be electromagnetic waves of extremely high frequencies, indicating that electrons have both particle and wave properties. The idea of electromagnetic waves was introduced by Michael Faraday (1791-1867), as a result of his experiments in chemistry and his work in electricity and magnetism that resulted to the discovery of electromagnetic induction. Then British physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who became professor of physics and astronomy at Cambridge University at the age of 25, pursued Maxwell’s works that resulted in the merger of electricity and magnetism and, in the process, discovered the nature of light as well (Konrad B. Krauskopf and Arthur Beiser, 1991:200-201).
In 1864, Maxwell introduced the concept of electromagnetic waves, which are disturbances generated by an accelerated electric charge. Their existence was finally discovered in 1887 by German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) to be exhibiting a behavior exactly described by Maxwell.
In 1900, German physicist Max Plank (1857-1947) suggested that hot objects give off energy in separate units, also called quanta. In 1905, another German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) pursued the idea that, if this is so, then, light should also travel through space. He proposed that light consists of tiny bursts of energy called photons. The photons of light have no mass and move with the speed of light. But they have most of the properties of particles: space-situated; have energy and momentum; and interact with other particles. Thus, to Einstein, light integrates both wave and particle.
This idea was even stretched further when in 1923-1924, the French physicist and prince Louis de Broglie (1892-1987), reasoning based on the properties of photons, hypothesized that light waves sometimes behaved as if they were made up of particles, so he proposed that moving particles could behave as if they were waves. His hypothesis was indeed verified in 1927 by American Physicists Clinton Joseph Davisson (1881-1958) and Lester Halbert Germer (1896-1971) that electrons can indeed behave like waves. This idea was further tested and verified to be true in many laboratory experiments around the world, in which electrons were shown to exhibit both diffraction and interference. Electromagnetic waves, like light waves and radio waves, carry an energy that makes these waves possible to travel through matter as well as a vacuum, with a speed equal to the value of the speed of light. It was Louis de Broglie who maintained in 1924 that the waves associated with moving particles travels with great velocity in a group or packet of waves.
In summary, an atom is a solid particle in the sense that it has mass, weight, and size; as such, it is localized or confined in a certain place or volume. But it is also a wave vigorously vibrating with energy. Unlike particle, waves are spread across any region in space, occupying several locations at any given moment in time. They are, sort of, anywhere and everywhere. Waves travel in many forms and can appear to the observing physicist as a light wave, a microwave, radio wave, etc. They, thus, appear as vibrating fields of electricity and magnets. While particles travel through waves, waves are also particles.
At the atomic level, therefore, matter possesses a dual nature; it appears as a particle and as wave; and also as wave and particle at the same time. Speaking from the perspective of classical mechanics, Rutherford opines that “matter is predominantly empty space. When we pound a table, it feels solid, but it is the interplay of electrical forces (and quantum rules) among atoms and molecules.” In the Einsteinian formula, E=mc2, there is no more distinction between mass and energy. Energy equals matter; energy can transform itself into matter, and matter can transmute itself into energy. Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) who developed to the full the quantum theory later commented that “energy becomes matter by taking on the form of an elementary particle, by manifesting itself in this form” (1990).
Because of the wave nature of the atom, any form of expression of its presence necessarily affects all the other atoms that are tuned to its frequency or vibration. A wave is a vibrational pattern in space and time. This pattern is characterized by an amplitude, the extent of the vibration, a wavelength, and the distance between two successive crests. The oscillation is characterized by a certain frequency. And the effect of waves extends to all species both human and nonhumans, considering the fact that all species consist of atoms, though at varying degrees of frequencies and vibrations. Moreover, the influence of waves is instantaneous across space, knowing that waves at the subatomic level travels at a speed that is even more than the speed of light. Distance has vanished at the level of the subatomic world. There is only one continuum - no past, no future, for everything is already laid down in an instant.
Quantum mechanics has, thus, provided us with another view of describing reality, an alternative view, one might say, which is seen from the micro or atomic perspective, in contrast to the view held by classical mechanics, which focuses mainly on the large-scale cosmos and the laws of behavior governing its dynamics. And, yet, the dual nature of matter is just the beginning of the many paradoxes revealed at the quantum level. There are other quantum ramifications that are even stranger than science fiction. We will dwell on this issue in our subsequent features.#