Irreverent Mama

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Atoms are very, very weird.

I am no scientist, but I have always, for all my education in the Arts and Humanities, been fascinated by science of all sorts. I researched and wrote a report on bees when I was eight, made models of clouds when I was ten, devoured books on astronomy when I was eleven and twelve, designed simple circuits in my early teens.

It's probably sadly telling that absolutely none of this happened under the tutelage or with the encouragement of an actual science teacher. I did it all on my own, because it was interesting. Perhaps if I'd stumbled across the right teacher, I'd have charged down a totally different career path. Who knows?

Science classes were intermittently interesting, but thankfully by the time I reached high school I had long since perceived the distinction critical to the survival of intellectual curiosity: Education and schooling are not the same thing. If you're lucky, there's an overlap. If you're very lucky, there's a considerable overlap. A lot of the time, there's remarkably little, or at least there was for me.

The corollary to this distinction is the awareness that just because you don't like school, doesn't mean you don't like learning. You may hate your math class and still like math. To be bored witless in your physics class (which I was), does not mean that physics is boring. Thankfully I grasped this distinction young, so my love of learning proceeded unquashed by bored teachers and learning-hostile fellow students. (No, I didn't let my peers know I did all this stuff. Do I look stupid?)

So I suffered schooling, and I did my learning (well, a good portion of it) elsewhere. Which is marvellous, for now that I'm no longer in school, I'm still learning! Unimaginable purgatory to many of my adolescent peers. I hope they're very happy slinging hash 30 years later...

(Nyah, nyah, nyah.)

It is no surprise, then, that I'm reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, and learning all sorts of stuff. It's the sort of book that annoys the crap out even the most long-suffering of spouses, as the person reading the book is forever calling out an excited...

"Listen to this!" (No, really. Listen!)

"For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you--indeed, don't even know that you are there.... (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.)"

Now, isn't that a thought to set you pondering?

And when you get to the bit of the book about atoms, your pondering achieves dizzying heights. If you think with Mr. Scott that "Ye canna change the laws of physics!", you haven't considered the atom. Because, oh! Listen to this!

On an atomic level, "electrons jump from one orbit to another without traveling across any intervening space" (teleportation?!?); certain atomic pairs work in instantaneous paralell, no matter how much distance lies between them (non-sentient telepathy?), and if that's not weird enough, "matter could pop into existence from nothing at all--'provided, ... it disappears again with sufficient haste.'"

It's not so much that you can't change the laws of physics as that the laws which apply to the larger reality are irrelevant to atomic reality. Which is a mind-boggler, right there.

Atoms are mostly empty space. Well, I knew that, from my (outrageously boring) grade eleven physics class. Have known it, therefore, for decades. But either I was never told, or never grasped, the implications of this. Implications, you ask? Well, just listen to THIS!

"When two objects come together in the real world...they don't actually strike each other. 'Rather,' as Timothy Ferris explains, 'the negatively charged fields of the two balls repel each other ... were it nor for their electrical charges they could, like galaxies, pass right through each other unscathed.' [Like GALAXIES?? I will be pursuing this later, you may be sure. Back to the quote now:] When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimeter), your electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy."

Floating through a reality of repelling electrons. Too bad the angstrom doesn't prevent numb bum on hard office chairs...

Science is fascinating, I tell you. Utterly, utterly fascinating.

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  • Thank you for a great post. I'm going now to order Bryson's book from my library.


    By Blogger excavator, at 12:48 a.m.  

  • It's a fun one! It's also, at 478 pages, plus notes, a decently substantial tome. I'm loving it!

    By Blogger irreverentmama, at 7:05 a.m.  

  • Haven't read the book, but heard good things.

    But as an must really have had an awful physics teacher - grade 11 physics is FAR from boring!! It's fascinating, and interesting, and fun! And practical! (just ask any of my grade 11 physics students - they all loved it!!)

    By Anonymous Naomi (Urban Mummy), at 7:49 a.m.  

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