Sorry to be insulting, but it’s true.

Here’s some artwork I’ve been working on to substantiate this claim.

You see, if proof were needed.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. It’s not exactly nothing you’re made of, but it’s really not much. As you know, we’re made of atoms and the atom is a big load of nothingness with a tiny nucleus and a few electrons spinning round it.

If the nucleus of an atom was the same size as a grain of rice and it was sitting in the middle of an empty football stadium, the electrons would be spinning around the outer reaches of the atomic stadium. Each electron is about two thousands times smaller than the nucleus. Between the grain of rice and the titchy electrons, there’s nothing – not a thing, just the odd tumble weed moseying through.

Take hydrogen, for example. We have a lot of hydrogen atoms in us. Hydrogen has one electron spinning around its nucleus, trying desperately to look solid, and that’s it. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, making up 75% of the universe’s mass.

So you’re nothing and the universe is nothing.

Now that you’re feeling good about yourself, let’s ask the question: how do we know this?

Democritus at around 400BC was sitting around in Greece bashing a rock. The rock split in half, so he bashed it into quarters, then he bashed it again into eighths. He was a bit knackered after that, so rather than continued bashing he just thought about bashing and came up with the question: can I continue cutting this rock in half forever? The answer was no, because his dinner was nearly ready, and no, because eventually you would come to an uncuttable grain. Atomus is the greek for uncuttable and atom became the word for the smallest quantity in an element.

Almost 2300 years went by before anyone significantly contributed to this. By then people knew about electricity but they didn’t know what it was made of. John Dalton in the late nineteenth century decided to investigate. He made a glass tube, put two metal contacts at the ends, sucked out the air and applied a high voltage between the contacts. Extraordinary glowing lights shone in the tube. Scientists were creeped out, they went mad (like the guy in the hoover on the left), they thought it was ectoplasm, they threw their pipettes on the floor and turned to spiritualism. Well, some of them did.

JJ Thompson didn’t. He sucked out more air to create a vacuum and discovered he could control the spots of light with magnets and voltages and concluded that lights were ‘charges of negative electricity carried by particles of matter’, and not, in fact, ectoplasm from beyond the grave. How silly did those other scientists feel?

Atoms were like plum puddings, they deduced,  with the electrons embedded like raisons in a tasty sphere of positive charge. Sounds lovely with a few quarks sprinkled on top.

New Zealander Ernest Rutherford finished off the plum pudding (greedy guts) theory with some experiments with radium. Radium spits out alpha particles like a machine gun. Alpha particles in the atomic world are massive. He bombarded a piece of gold (that he had lying around) with alpha particles to see what would happen. 1 in 8000 of the alpha particles bounced back. I’ll let Rutherford explain:

‘It’s quite the most incredible event that’s happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15 inch shell at a piece of tissue and it bounced back and hit you’

Alpha particles are positively charged, so the implication is they’ve struck something in the atom that is also positively charged and then been repelled. Because it’s only 1 in 8000 that are being repelled then the positive particle in the atoms must be very small compared to the size of the atom. Out went the plum pudding theory and in came the atom like a solar system theory – a very small positive nucleus with electrons whirling round the outside. That was the start of atomic theory and some very complicated maths.

Electrons were the first fundamental particles to be discovered. And it turns out everything in the Universe is just electrons spinning around a nucleus. Hydrogen, one electron round the nucleus, Helium, 2 electrons, Oxygen, 4 electrons etc. Because they’re whizzing around the outside of the atomic stadium, electrons are easily displaced and can move between atoms or get shared between atoms. When electrons are shared, larger molecules are formed and more complicated structured (like us) can develop.

Electrons are also pretty useful in the modern world. When you get a shock from your car door, that spark contains electrons. Admittedly that’s more annoying than useful, but it demonstrates how loosely bonded electrons are to their atoms.  This property of electrons is used in motors, light bulbs, PCs anything that requires an electric current.

So, to summarize: the electron is everything and the atom is nothing (and so are you). I’m off to do several pages of calculation to prove that the Pauli Exclusion Principle does indeed prove that two identical half-integer spin electrons can’t occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. Or maybe I’ll have a beer instead.

Thanks for reading,

Ian Young

You’re nothing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *