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To Ponder an Atom…

January 26, 2013

This one…

Not this one… Okay, sometimes this one…

As I contemplate the micro-atomic realm, as I am wont to do from time to time, I’m boggled by the impossibility of imagining an atom.

The graphic to the left, while cool, is only a model of an atom, it isn’t what it actually looks like.  Because you can’t see an atom.

Not just because we don’t have the technology, mind you, but because seeing it is impossible.

Imagine you could shrink down to sub-atomic size, like our friend on the right.  What would you see?  Nothing.  Not only would it be dark, it would be dangerous.

Light, as we know, is composed of photons; little particles that act like waves, or waves that act like particles… wavicles.  On a sunny day as we shrank and shrank, those beautiful sun rays will become granular, pelting you like sand.  The smaller you go, the bigger they get.  What would they look like?  Nothing. They don’t glow (they don’t have micro-photons to emit), they wouldn’t have color because photons  are pure white, or really an absence of color — space is full of light, yet it looks dark. Weird huh?– nor would they hit your eyes, and if they did, it would hurt!

When we see an object, our eyes don’t send out scanning rays; instead, billions of photons bouncing off the object hit our eye (through a lens that inverts the image, weird, huh?) and our brain interprets what the retina is being pelted with.  At sub-atomic size, there are no photons small enough to hit your eyes, so no sight (no air either!).

A photon is the same size or smaller than an electron.  Small enough to pass through atomic structure, but if the photon has enough energy to power the electron to the next valence shell, the electron will suck up the wavelength it wants, no photons go through and the non-absorbed wavelengths bounce off, giving you a colored opaque object, the color determined by the color of the non-absorbed wavelength.  If there isn’t enough energy at all, the electron won’t absorb any wavelength and it passes through, so you have a clear object like glass or water.

Electrons are picky vampires.

The other weird thing about that, is if we say a ball is red, we’re wrong.  That ball is every color BUT red, that’s why we can see the red wavelength.

So an atom is unseeable. It has no color, no glow.  Is it solid, plasma, energy or something else entirely?  Dunno.  That cute model above is the only way us little people can imagine it.  Otherwise we’d be stuck with just the mathematical equations.  Those make my head hurt.

But this…

…is the SHADOW of an electron. !  Just like light can cast a bigger shadow than it’s object, those grainy things are marks of billions of photons and the black part is where the electron eclipsed or ate the photons.

How freaking cool, right?

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