In Part 3. of this series (which starts here), I’d finally got around to building an atom. Perhaps it seemed a lot of work to present something so small, but as you probably realize now (if you’ve read those posts), I’ve given you just the vaguest description of the intricacies in those tiny parts of us. However, if we are really to build a Model of Everything, we must move along…

So let us use the traditional model of the atom; the atom below is called Hydrogen:

And lets us bring billions and billions of these together. Under the force of gravity, these atoms coalesce into a sphere—they are subject to ever increasing pressures and temperatures, and at some point, these Hydrogen atoms ignite into a nuclear inferno we call a star:

In the belly of this inferno, protons and neutrons are forced together, and via electromagnetism, they collect more electrons. Put plainly, stars cook atoms into heavier atoms (we call elements) and when they are done cooking, stars explode:

But before we go further, let’s recap. We started the Model of Everything with Elementary Particles (of which there are several types). We found that when certain of them get together, it makes a proton, and when another particle is added (an electron), it makes an atom. When enough of these atoms get together, it makes a star—and stars make elements. I made a picture of the progression for you:

Now what happens to these newly cooked elements once they’re flung into space? They collect again, and because there are now new and different types of elements, they interact in new and different ways. Some elements combine with other elements to form molecules, these elements and molecules interact, collect, react, and re-collect.

Out of the corpses of stars, form new stars and new bodies. On some of these new bodies—planets—we find naturally occurring, simple molecules like water:

And we find more complex molecules like amino acids, which occur naturally on planets and on some comets:

In the course of this blog post, then, we’ve gotten from tiny atoms to huge bodies like stars and planets—but more importantly, we begin to see the creative power of emergence—we see that out of relatively simple interactions, new and novel properties can arise from mere organization and pattern.

Organization and pattern is how we get from energy to “solid” atoms, and it’s how we get from atoms to chemistry. The emergence of chemistry, the complex interactions of atoms and molecules, can create an amazing diversity of stuff. I’ve made another picture to help you visualize it:

I mean, isn’t it fascinating that when elementary particles get-together in certain, repetitive ways, we end up with exploding stars—and planets with atmospheres—and volcanoes—and snow—and oceans—and mountains ranges—and hot springs!? It’s pretty impressive stuff, really, for a bunch of elementary particles.

At least, if you ask me (and of course, this is really just the beginning…)

NEXT: Part 5. A Molecule that Copies


In Part 2. of this series (which starts here), I touched on a bit of Quantum weirdness—namely, probability, uncertainty, and wave/particle duality. But before we depart from the world of the very small (and move into the world of the merely small), I want to discuss another aspect of matter—its vast, internal emptiness.

As we move out from the world of quanta and look at combinations of Elementary Particles, they begin to create new structures, and they begin to behave in ways that seem more logical to us—that is to say, with certainty. And yet, a certain weirdness remains.

A proton consists of 3 quarks—2 ‘Up’ and 1 ‘Down’. The simplest atom consists of 1 Proton and 1 Electron. Now if we were to measure the quarks (revealing their particle nature) we would find the proton is mostly empty space compared to the size of the quarks. That is, taken together, the quarks inside the proton are 3000 times “smaller” than the proton. And when the orbiting electron is added, the size of all Elementary Particles inside the atom is 25 million times smaller than the atom itself. It’s like 4 people wandering around Texas blindfolded, very lonely.

The image below gives you some sense of the emptiness inside the atom, but keep in mind that the electron is 10 kilometers away.

Let’s scale this down to something smaller than a 10-kilometer atom. Let’s say the atom is a football stadium and the proton is a dwarf cherry on the 50-yard line. In that case the electron would be microscopic if measured as a particle, but of course we already know that electrons (when not measured) don’t behave as particles—they behave as waves, waves of probability. And it is this wave of probability in near-empty space that makes matter solid. Matter is a dwarf cherry ensconced in a pool of probability filling the size of a football stadium.

And I think this realization forces us into some rather strange conclusions, for example–the hardness of matter does not result from objects taking up space; it results from the waving probability that something may be taking up space and the force of the energy holding all the emptiness together. The vacant space of my hand stops at the boundary of your body not because it is full, but because it is empty—because emptiness, it turns out, is the bigger part of what we are.

NEXT: Part 4. From Atoms to Suns