07 What is the Universe Made Of?

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Harmony of Bible and Science Presented in a Series of Articles

07 What is the Universe Made Of?

Bible and Science - What is the Universe Made Of?

What is the Universe Made Of?By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command,
so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (Heb. 11:3 NIV).

So far we have dealt with things very large, namely the universe, but at a very fundamental level. The galaxies, stars, planets and even ourselves are made up of infinitesimally small particles, which form the atomic structure of all matter. Ordinary matter is composed of three sub-atomic particles, which where recognized starting with the discovery of the electron, in 1897. Later, the proton was found in 1919 and finally the neutron was detected in 1932.1

At the atomic level

The proton is a positively charged particle that resides in the nucleus of all atomic matter. The neutron has no electronic charge and is in the nucleus of most atomic material (except hydrogen which is just a proton and an electron).

The electron is negatively charged and is some 1800 times less massive than the proton. It is not in the nucleus of the atom, but rather dances around in a cloud-like shell enveloping the atomic core. Taking the simple case of a hydrogen atom, one finds one proton at its core with a single electron orbiting the proton. The scale of this atom is millions of times smaller than the width of a human hair! It also has some very puzzling properties.

Everyone knows that if you take a positive and negative charge and put them together you get a spark. If you’ve ever incorrectly grounded your auto battery you know what I mean (don’t try this experiment — it can be dangerous!). Yet the hydrogen atom is perfectly stable and so are all other elements in nature.

At first it was thought that the electron circled around the core proton much as the moon circles around the earth. If this were true, then the speed of the electron’s orbit (the orbital velocity) would have to balance the attractive force of the opposite electric charges, which want to pull the electron into the proton thus annihilating both. However, this model for explaining the electron’s orbit didn’t make much sense because it was already known by the late 19th century that a moving charge radiates energy. In fact, this is the origin of radio and television signals.

What would happen with time (extremely small fractions of a second) is that a negative electron revolving around a positively charged proton would radiate energy and quickly lose orbital velocity, spiral into the atomic nucleus and go KABOOM!2 We know this doesn’t happen, or we wouldn’t be here, and the reason is that classical physics doesn’t work in the world of the very small. The electron stays safely in a cloud around the atom nucleus, which is filled with protons/neutrons. A whole new way of thinking about physics called ‘quantum mechanics’ had to be invented to explain it.

Quantum mechanics

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr first worked out the so-called quantum view of nuclear stability in 1913. He postulated that the electron could occupy stable orbits. In these stable states of fixed energy electrons did not radiate electromagnetic waves, nor did they become attracted to the positively charged nucleus. If one attempted to change the energy of the electron, one could only do so in discrete amounts called ‘quanta’ which would excite the electron to a higher (metastable) energy orbital.

Why the orbitals should be stable is totally unexplainable in terms of classical physics. To understand this phenomenon further, intensive theoretical and experimental research went into play over the next decade and a half on what came to be known as ‘quantum mechanics,’ a term used to differentiate the world of the very small from the ‘classical mechanics’ of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and others, that had been so successful in explaining the macroscopic world.

The results of these studies produced some startling ideas, which are often counterintuitive to the everyday world of our experience. In fact, to be completely honest, quantum mechanics is downright strange! Even the physicist Bohr, who could be called the father of the field, is reputed to have said, after giving a lecture trying to explain quantum mechanics to a group of philosophers who didn’t appear to get it: “Anyone who is not dizzy after his first acquaintance with the quantum of action has not understood a word.” Let’s explore some of the weird behavior of this microscopic, unseen atomic world at the atomic level that makes up the fundamental stuff that comprises everything in the universe, including ourselves.

Impossible to accurately measure

The actions of particles in the quantum world were soon given a statistical interpretation that was expressed in terms of a simple expression (at least for physicists) called the Schrödinger equation. This law is a probability equation that allows one to predict the behavior of atomic particles if one knows the associated potential energy function. Thus, the behavior at the submicroscopic level of the electron, proton, neutron and a host of other particles real (or virtual) could be predicted with great certainty using this equation. Ironically, while one could do so for an assembly of particles, it was eventually realized by Heisenberg that one could never actually know the physical facts about any ‘single’ particle, and this has become known as the famous uncertainty principle. The very act of measuring the position, or velocity, or whatever, about an individual particle affects the condition of the particle such that one can never exactly specify the parameter one was after with absolute certainty.

How do we imagine this in the world of our everyday experience? Suppose I want to measure how far an electron has moved in one second. In order to do this, I have to observe the electron and ‘see’ it. In order to do something as apparently simple as ‘see’ the particle, we can imagine shining a beam of light on it. We need to realize that the beam of light is composed of packets of energy called ‘photons.’ The instant the beam of light impinges on the particle we will change the state of the particle by imparting to it energy from the very light beam we set up to observe it. Hence, the very act of measurement changes the behavior of the object we want to measure.

This is a very simple approach, but it should get the idea across. Classical physics predicted things with absolute certainty; if we know the initial position, velocity, acceleration and forces on a body we could predict its behavior for all time (provided nothing else was added to the system). However, with quantum mechanics, we can never predict with absolute certainty the behavior of any individual particle. The best we can do is to express the behavior of a large assembly of particles in terms of probability functions.

The probabilistic results of quantum mechanics drove physicists so crazy that the famous physicist Albert Einstein said, The theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer to the secret of the Old One. In any case I am convinced that He does not throw dice.3Notwithstanding Einstein, quantum mechanics has proved to be extremely successful and the results of the discovery of the laws of ‘quantum mechanics’ has led to thousands of new products from computers to cell phones, to name but a few.

Odd characteristics

In spite of its utility, quantum weirdness still amazes. Consider for example another strange result of this theory. Suppose you came to a hill 25,000 feet tall and you couldn’t get around it in any way. You would have two choices for surmounting this obstacle: you could either expend your energy climbing the hill, or you could use your strength to dig a tunnel through it. However, ‘quantum mechanics’ provides a third path: you could simply wait for a ‘quantum fluctuation’ and find yourself on the other side of the mountain!

Naturally, you are scratching your head at this point and thinking this is all science fiction. Indeed sci-fi writers have exploited the strangeness (sometimes entirely without a correct scientific basis!) of quantum mechanics to create some fantastic stories. In literary terms, a ‘quantum leap’ has come to mean a gigantic change, whereas in reality the quantum world strictly applies to the micro-world and only for miniscule energy changes. In this micro-world electrons do indeed surmount energy barriers that are much larger than the apparent energy that they possess. This effect is called ‘tunneling’ and even though physicists cannot predict if any given electron will tunnel, the behavior of an assembly of electrons of a given energy can, in principle, be predicted exactly using Schrödinger’s equation. In other words, the probability that a certain fraction of the electrons will tunnel and get through an energy barrier greater than the self-energy of the electrons themselves is certain. It may sound crazy, but it works, and the integrated circuits in the computer I am using to type this essay function according to the rules of ‘quantum mechanics.’

It should be noted that the greater the energy of the electron assembly relative to the height of the energy barrier that we want them to surmount, the higher will be the fraction of electrons that will tunnel and simply find themselves on the other side. It also follows that since quantum theory is a probabilistic theory, if we have a larger number of electrons of a given energy trying to surmount a high-energy barrier, then the larger the number of electrons that will tunnel. What has this got to do with us trying to get over a 25,000-foot high mountain with minimum exertion of energy on our part?

It sounds balmy

If we want to get to the other side of the mountain with a quantum fluctuation, we can simply wait around until it happens. In principle, we can calculate exactly what the probability would be for us to do so. The fact that none of us has experienced such a phenomenon makes it obvious that the probability must be very low.

We can increase the probability by upping our energy level. All we need do is run as hard as we can up the initial slope of the mountain until we drop! While this helps, if we carry out the calculation, the probability is so small that we would exceed the entire age of the universe before we would have a chance of experiencing a quantum tunneling effect that would get us to the other side of the mountain without climbing it. This doesn’t mean it cannot happen, it only means it is extremely unlikely.

We can increase the odds of someone getting to the other side of this mountain by getting more people involved. Suppose we could convince every human being on earth to start running at this mountain night and day for years on end until someone finally quantum tunneled to the other side (it would get very crowded at the base station!). Given five or six billion people, more or less, making many attempts every day, year on end, then the chances are reasonable that we would find one or more tunneling to the other side in a few years. As the attempt frequency goes up, and the energy of those trying to run up the mountain increases, the probability of success increases.

The fact that we have never seen it happen is only because the statistics are so poor. What is absolutely certain is that the probability is NOT zero. Sooner or later it will happen. Someone will have started to run a few hundred feet up the mountain only to find themselves instantly on the other side. One can calculate what is known of the wave function (which is what a formal solution to the Schrödinger equation is called) of any human being and from that we can get the probability, for example, of me apparently getting through a solid steel door and finding myself on the other side without ever opening the door.

Now your head is probably swimming from this discussion and you may be sitting there thinking: he has gone mad, and moreover all scientists are positively balmy. Nevertheless what I tell you is true; quantum mechanics works and literally tens of millions of microchips are manufactured every year that function according to the laws of physics worked out by that theory.

Through locked doors

As an interesting aside, there is a passage in the scriptures that gives skeptics a field day. The verse in question is in the gospel of John 20:19. It says, speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ after his resurrection visiting his disciples while they where eating in a sealed room: On the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (NIV) The difficultly is the phrase ‘doors locked’. The skeptics often dismiss this passage as a fable or fabrication. However, the event was witnessed by a large number of people and the disciples were neither foolish nor ignorant.

The gospel record is explicit in this detail when it didn’t have to be. In other words, the miracle of Jesus coming to his disciples in a sealed room is, in a sense, simply a passing comment. Why would Matthew make this comment if he hadn’t been an eyewitness and if he wasn’t certain that all the others who had evidenced the same event would back him up? Why add a story that would simply encourage incredulity if it didn’t indeed happen exactly as recorded?

If one only knew classical physics, one could dismiss the whole record here as simply impossible, but from what we now know about quantum mechanics (and from the little slice of it that I have given above), we can be certain that no laws of physics were violated. In fact, the laws of physics guarantee that it was not only possible, given the right amount of manipulation of energy, the event was absolutely certain! Under the right circumstances, there is a finite probability that we could do it ourselves; given our level of energy, it just might take a little longer to get into a sealed room!

Wonderfully made

A final thought about the structure of the atom. The actual mass making up the atoms in our body is trivially small. The fact that we appear solid is due almost entirely to the strong electromagnetic forces that bind the electrons to the proton/neutron nucleus as well as those forces that bond atom to atom. Remove these electromagnetic forces and the total mass of our bodies would fit comfortably on the head of a pin. The fact is we are mostly empty space! Ponder that for a few moments and I am sure you will agree with the Psalmist: I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well(Psa. 139:14).

By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Footnotes

1. J. J. Thompson, E. Rutherford and J. Chadwick discovered the electron, proton and neutron, respectively, in the years cited. At an even finer scale it is now theorized that the latter two particles are constituted of even smaller elementary entities called ‘quarks’, but this is beyond the scope of the present discussion.

2. “In 1911,Rutherford had postulated an atomic model which described the hydrogen atom as a small heavy nucleus surrounded by an electron in a fixed circular orbit around it. The only snag here was that this arrangement was completely forbidden by the laws of classical physics. According to Maxwell’s equations, the electron, involved in circular motion hence accelerating, should be continuously emitting electromagnetic radiation. This energy could only come from the rotational motion, so the electron should spiral into the nucleus.” Cited from: http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/”hs0bcl/h_nb.htm

3. Albert Einstein (commenting on his skepticism about the validity of Quantum Theory). The Physicist Niels Bohr is reputed to have replied in response to this “Einstein, stopping telling God what He can do!”