Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Awesome Illustration of Empty Space

This is a long one, but worth the read. If you've been reading the blog for a while you already know about my fascination with scale, both macro and microscopic. In the second category, I found a website that does a great job at illustrating just how much empty space there is in a single atom. I'll give you the website and then my perspective.

The page doesn't seem to work correctly in every browser. I tried it in Firefox unsuccessfully, but had good results with Safari. I'm sure Internet Explorer with work fine, too. The short explanation of what you'll see is a scale model of the constituent elements of a hydrogen atom, the simplest of all elements, and the space between them. The smallest bit in an atom is the electron which, in this demonstration is rendered as one on-screen pixel. It's at the far right side of the page. The nucleus, which in the case of hydrogen is only a proton and no neutron, is 1,000 times larger than the electron circling it. It's understandably rendered in this illustration as a circle 1,000 pixels across.

Here's the incredible bit. At the scale we're working with in this model, the distance between the electron orbiting the proton in the center of the atom and the proton itself is 50,000,000 pixels. At a screen resolution of 72 pixels per inch (a resolution all computer monitors share), this distance, illustrated on the website is eleven miles long.

Eleven miles. Try and take that in. The electron is a single pixel. The proton just about fills the screen, and the space between them is eleven miles of nothing. When you come to the page you'll see the proton. Then click and hold on the bottom scroll bar to start moving the page off to the right. You'll be moving in the direction of the electron, on the far right side of the page, but it will take you a long time to get there. You'll see the scroll bar moving, but just barely. If you had the patience and held the scroll bar you'd pan the full eleven miles to the electron on the right. It takes a lot of patience.

That's eleven miles of empty space. And remember, this page is illustrating the distance between the center of the atom and its outer edge, the electron. In other words, the radius. The full diameter of the atom in this demonstration is 22 miles. 22 miles of almost pure empty space.

What does that translate to in volume, looking at the atom as a full sphere? Framed at a scale we can envision, the one we've been using, in a hydrogen atom, a basic building block of matter, there is 4,188,790,206 pixels of actual mass (the proton and the electron) and...wait for it...523,598,775,598,333,300,000,000 pixels of nothing. 523 septilion pixels of empty space. Void. Complete and total nothingness.

Percentage wise, that puts actual stuff in the atom, the proton and electron at .0000000000000008 the total volume. Only eight ten quadrillionths of the total mass of the atom. Imagine you had a neighborhood with 10 quadrillion (10,000,000,000,000,000) houses in it (that's a separate house for every single person on the face of the earth more than 1,000,000 times over). In this example most of these houses stand vacant.In fact only eight actually have people living in them. The rest is nothing but empty space. There's virtually no actual stuff in an atom. Really. The math doesn't lie.

What does that mean on a macro scale? What does that mean for everything we touch? What does that mean for us? We're comprised of atoms, 99 percent of which are hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, all relatively simple atoms. The average human contains roughly 7*1027 atoms. That's a lot of atoms, but those atoms contain almost nothing in them. In fact, the number of atoms contained in our bodies doesn't really matter. Since we're made of atoms, and atoms are almost entirely empty space, regardless of the number of atoms we contain, we are still forced to accept the conclusion that we too are almost entirely empty space. In the same percentages as the atoms themselves.

For something that seems so solid, so real, it's hard to accept that we sort of barely exist. But it's true. Our bodies are only roughly .0000000000000008 percent stuff. The rest is empty space. Our solidity is owed completely to the strong nuclear force that holds the nucleus of our atoms together and the electric charge that binds the electrons inside. We're not solid because we're made of stuff. We're solid because of the energy that binds together what infinitely little stuff we actually are. So, in a very real sense we are simply empty space and energy with an infinitesimal spit of "stuff" thrown in.

See that? No matter which direction you go, to the tiniest of things, or to the universe at large you find mostly empty space and energy. I find that awe-inspiring.

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