Does anyone know what this is?
What if I did this?
It’s an electron circling a proton (from http://www.particlezoo.net/), which makes a what? An atom—a hydrogen atom, to be precise. Or to be even more precise, a hydrogen-1, or protium, or light hydrogen atom. Just a proton and an electron, the most abundant isotope of the most abundant element in the universe.
Now if I did this demonstration for an ancient Greek philosopher, like Democritus, he’d disagree that the one particle circling another represented an atom, because the Greek word ἄτομον, atomon, means “uncuttable” or “indivisible.” And clearly I could cut or divide this “planetary model” of the atom in two.
The point is that what the ancient Greeks or Indians (for that matter) considered an atom, something uncuttable or indivisible, we would call a particle. Because we’ve known for the last couple a hundred years that atoms are not irreducible, but they themselves can be broken down into ever small parts.
So this is a perfectly serviceable representation of a hydrogen atom. But it’s only a representation. There a plenty of other ways to imagine what an atom is like.
Far from being the hard and solid particles they were believed to be since antiquity, the atoms turned out to consist of vast regions of space in which extremely small particles—the electrons—moved around the nucleus, bound to it by electric forces. It is not easy to get a feeling for the order of magnitude of atoms, so far is it removed from our macroscopic scale. The diameter of an atom is about one hundred millionth of a centimeter. In order to visualize this diminutive size, imagine an orange blown up to the size of the Earth. The atoms of the orange will then have the size of cherries. Myriads of cherries, tightly packed into a globe of the size of the Earth—that’s a magnified picture of the atoms in an orange.
An atom, therefore, is extremely small compared to macroscopic objects, but it is huge compared to the nucleus in its center. In our picture of cherry-sized atoms, the nucleus of an atom will be so small that we will not be able to see it. If we blew up the atom to the size of a football, or even to room size, the nucleus would still be too small to be seen by the naked eye. To see the nucleus, we would have to blow up the atom to the size of the biggest dome in the world, the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. In an atom of that size, the nucleus would have the size of a grain of salt! A grain of salt in the middle of the dome of St Peter’s, and specks of dust whirling around it in the vast space of the dome—this is how we can picture the nucleus and electrons of an atom.
—Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics
Kind of makes these two guys look a little silly. But the grain of salt surrounded by specks of dust is once again just another representation. For over a century scientists have acknowledged that particles don’t just act like particles—they can act like waves, too.
So another way to describe the quantum state of a particle is something called a wave function.
Here’s the wave function for hydrogen:
And if that doesn’t look strange enough, there’s an even more complex view of the particles inside of an atom.
In the spring of 1940, John Wheeler proposed the “one-electron postulate” in a phone call to Richard Feynman. It states that, “All electrons and positrons are manifestations of a single entity moving backwards and forwards in time.”
I don’t even know where one would begin to come up with a representation for that idea.
The point is that the idea of the atom that the ancient Greeks and Indians came up with seems pretty simple compared to what we now believe to be true. But we can understand what they were trying to get at—that somewhere inside the world as we know it is something that’s “uncuttable” and “indivisible.”
Of course, the ancients didn’t just contemplate things unimaginably small, they thought about the other end of the scale, too, incredibly huge concepts like eternity and infinity. They even had a word for the largest thing they could imagine: Deva, Deus, Theus; words we understand as referring to God.
In some ways, God was like the atom for the ancients, something indivisible. Since there was nothing bigger than God, God was pretty powerful. I think that Rudolf Bultmann in essay “Crisis of Faith” gives us a sense of what that power felt like:
It is God who makes us finite, who makes a comedy of our care, who allows our longing to miscarry, who casts us into solitude, who sets a terminus to our knowing and doing, who calls us to duty, and who gives the guilty over to torment.
It was this image of God that lead some ancients to say, “The only happy person is a dead person.”
But there’s another side to this deity as well. Bultmann balances his image of God with these words:
And yet, at the same time, it is God who forces us into life and drives us into care; who puts longing and desire for love in our hearts; who gives us thoughts and strength for our work, and who places us in the eternal struggle between self-assertion and duty.
Now many of us, maybe most of us, would hesitate to label this power Bultmann describes as “God.” But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And this is where faith comes in. If faith is, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, “a quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe,” then feeling at home means coming to terms with mysterious power Bultmann calls “God.”
Or, in another appropriately wordy way, what we Unitarian Universalists call “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
Faith for me is about finding our place in the cosmos. It’s what the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is all about.