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## Why Are Atoms So Big?

From the Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 1, Chapter 2:

Why Are Atoms So Big?

Why are atoms so big? Why is the nucleus at the center with the electrons around it? It was first thought that this was because the nucleus was so big; but no, the nucleus is very small. An atom has a diameter of about 10−810−8 cm. The nucleus has a diameter of about 10−1310−13 cm. If we had an atom and wished to see the nucleus, we would have to magnify it until the whole atom was the size of a large room, and then the nucleus would be a bare speck which you could just about make out with the eye, but very nearly all the weight of the atom is in that infinitesimal nucleus. What keeps the electrons from simply falling in? This principle: If they were in the nucleus, we would know their position precisely, and the uncertainty principle would then require that they have a very large (but uncertain) momentum, i.e., a very large kinetic energy. With this energy they would break away from the nucleus. They make a compromise: they leave themselves a little room for this uncertainty and then jiggle with a certain amount of minimum motion in accordance with this rule. (Remember that when a crystal is cooled to absolute zero, we said that the atoms do not stop moving, they still jiggle. Why? If they stopped moving, we would know where they were and that they had zero motion, and that is against the uncertainty principle. We cannot know where they are and how fast they are moving, so they must be continually wiggling in there!)
Another most interesting change in the ideas and philosophy of science brought about by quantum mechanics is this: it is not possible to predict exactly  what will happen in any circumstance. For example, it is possible to arrange an atom which is ready to emit light, and we can measure when it has emitted light by picking up a photon particle, which we shall describe shortly. We cannot, however, predict when it is going to emit the light or, with several atoms, which one is going to. You may say that this is because there are some internal “wheels” which we have not looked at closely enough. No, there are no internal wheels; nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundamentally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment. This is a horrible thing; in fact, philosophers have said before that one of the fundamental requisites of science is that whenever you set up the same conditions, the same thing must happen. This is simply not true, it is not a fundamental condition of science. The fact is that the same thing does not happen, that we can find only an average, statistically, as to what happens. Nevertheless, science has not completely collapsed. Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. For example, some philosopher or other said it is fundamental to the scientific effort that if an experiment is performed in, say, Stockholm, and then the same experiment is done in, say, Quito, the same results must occur. That is quite false. It is not necessary that science do that; it may be a fact of experience, but it is not necessary. For example, if one of the experiments is to look out at the sky and see the aurora borealis in Stockholm, you do not see it in Quito; that is a different phenomenon. “But,” you say, “that is something that has to do with the outside; can you close yourself up in a box in Stockholm and pull down the shade and get any difference?” Surely. If we take a pendulum on a universal joint, and pull it out and let go, then the pendulum will swing almost in a plane, but not quite. Slowly the plane keeps changing in Stockholm, but not in Quito. The blinds are down, too. The fact that this happened does not bring on the destruction of science. What is the fundamental hypothesis of science, the fundamental philosophy? We stated it in the first chapter: the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment. If it turns out that most experiments work out the same in Quito as they do in Stockholm, then those “most experiments” will be used to formulate some general law, and those experiments which do not come out the same we will say were a result of the environment near Stockholm. We will invent some way to summarize the results of the experiment, and we do not have to be told ahead of time what this way will look like. If we are told that the same experiment will always produce the same result, that is all very well, but if when we try it, it does not, then it does not. We just have to take what we see, and then formulate all the rest of our ideas in terms of our actual experience. We can also learn more about different measurement tools at Certified Scale.

### 4 Responses to “Why Are Atoms So Big?”

1. OS says:

I guess the bigger question here is why are you such an asshole? Parading yourself as woke, yet, astonishingly toxic (perhaps the one thing you learned from your Wall Street years – which you NEVER stop reminding us about yada yada yada). So many students leave ECON because of your antics. So sad. Look forward to the day U of R gets over brilliant jerks.

• wintercow20 says:

🙂 Awesome!

2. Michael says:

Amazing that we can split those atoms in order to get the bubbles into beer (Young Einstein reference for those who may be old enough). Fascinating perspective; I suppose this is worth mentioning in a “Is Economics a Science” debate? But the scientific method is only one method, there are others.

3. Scott says:

Wow this is great. I’ve always been bewildered by ‘the uncertainty principal,’ and this is helping me understand it. Really great post.

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