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The 'empty atom' fallacy
"The atom is mostly empty space." This statement has been repeated so many times by so many scholars and experts that it is accepted without question by nearly all educated people in the modern world. It is advanced as proof of the puzzling nature of atomic structure, and of the uselessness of common sense as a guide to truth and reality. It has become central to all elementary science courses from high school through university and beyond.
And it is nonsense.
To understand why requires little more than a thoughtful exercise of high school mathematics. The statement is based on the elementary model of atomic structure proposed by Rutherford, and derives from the relative dimensions of atoms and their constituent particles. The major components of atomic structure – electrons, protons and neutrons – have a radius of about a femtometre – 10-15 m – whereas atoms themselves are some 50,000 times larger at about 50 picometres or more. The volume of a hydrogen atom is about 6 x 10-31 m³ whereas that of a proton is 3 x 10-45 m³, a ratio of around 1014:1.
At first glance, these dimensions appear to justify the statement. What will be unfamiliar to laymen, however, are their magnitudes: they are so very tiny that few will have any reference with which to compare them, and this is why they initially seem mysterious and incomprehensible: they are so minuscule in comparison to everyday objects as to be meaningless. To understand their significance it is necessary to place them in a suitable perspective.
Let us compare atomic dimensions with those of a room measuring, say, 6 x 5 x 4 metres with a volume of 120 cubic metres. This is about 1032 times larger than that of an atom; a very large number, but not of any immediate significance. What is significant is that the interior of an atom is filled with a dynamic electromagnetic field – that is, electric and magnetic energy in a state of motion or oscillation. The amount of this energy is also very tiny, and because energy measurement is not a commonplace of everyday life, a few examples are needed to clarify the situation. Energy is measured in electron-volts in atomic studies (abbreviated eV) since it is a convenient unit for very small quantities; but common measurements require a much larger unit, the joule. This also is seldom used in daily life, but one joule per second is a watt, and there are 746 watts in one horsepower, something to which all motorcar aficionados can easily relate. One electron-volt is about 1.6 x 10-19 joule.
|Energy source||Energy Density|
|Lead acid battery||560 x 106|
|Wood||2,500 x 106|
|Ethanol||21,200 x 106|
|Petrol||34,600 x 106|
|Bituminous coal||24,000 x 106|
|Dynamite||6,217 x 106|
|Fission of U-235||1.5 x 1012|
|Hydrogen atom||3.5 x 1012|
However, a better example for our present purpose is a stick of dynamite. A typical stick weighs about 200g and has an energy equivalent of about a million joules – that is, one megajoule. Five sticks weigh a kilogram, and have a combined energy of five megajoules. A thousand kilograms equal a metric ton; this amount of dynamite has an energy equivalent of around five gigajoules. The atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 yielded energy equivalent to around 20,000 tons of high explosive, or 84 terajoules.
The quantity which is of interest to us here is not energy, but energy density, commonly designated by the letter w. Energy density is simply the amount of energy per unit volume and is measured in joules per cubic metre. If we assume that our stick of dynamite is 32mm in diameter and 200mm long, its volume and energy density can easily be calculated at about six gigajoules per cubic metre. As can be seen from the table at left, this is not exceptional, but when released almost instantaneously it creates a sudden explosion instead of a gradual burning.
|Item||Radius m||Volume m³||Energy eV|
|Proton||875 x 10–18||2.8 x 10–45|
|H atom||53 x 10–12||624 x 10–33||13.6|
|Item||Energy J||w J/m³|
|Energy within H atom||2.18 x 10–18|
|Energy density of H||3.49 x 1012|
|Item||Radius m||Length m||Volume m³|
|Dynamite||16 x 10–3||200 x 10–3||161 x 10–6|
|Item||Energy J||w J/m³|
|Dynamite||1 x 106||6.2 x 109|
|Item||Size m||Volume m³|
|Room filled with E density of H||419 x 1012|
The single electron in hydrogen is bound to the nucleus with an energy of 13.6 electron-volts or 2.18 x 10-18 joule, giving an energy density in the body of a hydrogen atom of a few terajoules per cubic metre, far greater than the energy density of dynamite. This is true for hydrogen, the simplest of all atoms. An atom of lead is about three times the diameter of an atom of hydrogen, but has eighty-two electrons bound within it, most of them carrying far more energy than the loosely-bound electron in hydrogen. The innermost electrons in lead have binding energies of about 88keV, some six thousand times more than the single electron in hydrogen.
Here we can return to the thread of our argument. If our example room of 6 x 5 x 4 metres were filled with energy at the same density as in hydrogen, the total energy in the room would be around 400 terajoules – about five times the energy of the Nagasaki bomb. If this energy were quiescent – still and unmoving – it might be of little consequence; but the presence of magnetism within atoms proves that the energy is contained within a dynamic electromagnetic field, since magnetism results from moving electric charges. In other words, the energy is in flux – moving and changing in space – and whilst only a small volume of energy, it is extremely intense.
Physical matter cannot withstand the huge energy flux within atoms – any physical object in a room filled with a similar energy density would be torn to shreds.
Thus the space within an atom is only 'empty' in the sense that there are no discernible material structures within it; it is certainly not empty in any real sense, being filled with an extraordinary concentration of energy. It is quite unlike anything we encounter in the everyday world: a different type of space. As simple as it sounds, this statement has profound implications, especially when the conclusion of Chapter Three is recalled: "there is no such 'thing' as energy". in other words, there is a potential of some sort within an atom that is electromagnetic in origin, but cannot be solely electromagnetic since it is dynamic yet stable. This quandary was 'solved' by the Copenhagen Interpretation by insisting that the truth of the matter can never be known, and questions about it are therefore meaningless. However:
All physical objects and events have three spatial dimensions and exist within time. They can therefore be visualized by the human mind.
But what if the interior of the atom is not physical? Can it still be visualized?
Let us imagine ourselves shrunk to a size smaller than an atom. We move in close to the atomic shell or boundary, and then slowly pass through it. What do we observe? We know that at macroscopic – real-world – scales the atomic boundary is a hard, impenetrable shell; quite literally as hard as steel. What is it made of? Were the atom a macroscopic object, we might suggest the finest spring steel, given its perfect elasticity; or perhaps a new alloy or type of plastic; but at the atomic scale this cannot be. There is no substance or material that we know of that is not itself comprised of atoms; and here is a most important point:
The atomic shell or boundary can have no thickness.
Were the boundary a rigid shell with finite thickness it would possess resonances – modes of vibration determined by the shell's thickness, diameter and material – just as with ordinary physical objects. There is no experimental evidence for anything like this. Only one conclusion is possible:
The atomic shell is a boundary between two different types of space.
But how can one space differ from another? The answer lies in two fundamental properties of space: electrical permittivity ( ε0 ) and magnetic permeability ( μ0 ). The first determines how much electrical energy space can absorb; the second how much magnetic flux it can sustain. Together they determine the speed of light:
c = ( ε0 μ0 ) – ½
When light passes through a piece of glass it slows down to a velocity determined by the material of the glass; that is, by the types of atoms in it.
All atoms have values of ε and μ characteristic of each chemical element, different from each other and from the ε0 and μ0 of empty space.
Thus the atomic boundary is not material – it has no substance – but is a division in and of space itself. The crucial importance of this is never mentioned in MWS. Scientists readily admit that interactions at subatomic scale obey very different laws from those at macroscopic scales, which is why QM had to be invented; but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion that they are dealing with a different type of space: a space that is not physical. This recognition forces the acceptance of space as a construct: sc. something created, not just something that 'is'. The question as to what created and sustains it must then be the focus of attention. Furthermore, if one type of space can be created, then so can others. We are faced with the probability that what we call 'space' is but one of a number of 'spaces', and that the same almost certainly applies to time. These statements can be combined to suggest:
The space-time continuum we inhabit is undoubtedly one of several.
Close consideration of atomic-scale phenomena quickly identifies the atom as a boundary of the physical realm for a reason that never appears in Physics textbooks:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to processes within atoms. There is no entropy within them, so they cannot be physical.
Most Readers will remember the Second Law from high-school days, and perhaps the related concept of entropy, but a more detailed understanding is necessary to clarify this vital point. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the amount of energy in a closed system does not change. The most general closed system is the entire Universe, and the energy equivalence of mass is included in its broadest interpretation. Here we need only consider the mundane phenomena of daily life. A starting approximation can be made by proposing that no physical process is perfectly efficient. In practical terms this means that some energy is always 'lost' to heat in any physical event. Heat thus occupies a special place in Physical Theory as the ultimate product of all physical activity, conveniently exemplified in the idea of the eventual 'heat-death' of the Universe as its final fate. More precisely, the equations of thermodynamics identify the energy inputs and outputs of any process, including an inevitable term expressing the amount converted to 'waste heat'. These phenomena are most clearly evident in such macroscopic daily events as the operation of vehicles, or just the heat lost to friction when we push a chair across the room. A more relevant example is the tiny amount of heat lost every time we bounce a rubber ball on the floor. As the ball distorts, friction between the rubber fibres creates heat and the ball grows warmer.
Now take the example of molecules of a gas enclosed in a container. If the gas is hotter than the container, innumerable collisions between the gas molecules and those of the container wall will cool the gas and heat the container until both are at the same temperature. After a longer time both will have cooled still further to the same temperature as their surroundings; but there the cooling stops. Even though millions of collisions are occurring each second between gas and other molecules, all of them are perfectly elastic. Not a single iota of energy is lost in any of the collisions, in complete contrast to all other physical processes. Note that the energy turned to heat within the rubber ball is not lost within its molecules; it merely sets them vibrating faster. Similarly, the molecules of the gas maintain a fixed average rate of motion so long as the temperature remains constant. This simple, obvious fact sets atomic collisions apart from all other physical processes and leads to the conclusion that:
The perfectly elastic collisions between atoms identifies them as boundaries of the Physical Realm at the scale of smallest size.
Imagine a scene in Nature. The wind rustling the leaves of a tree; ocean waves rolling onto a beach; a rock dislodged on a cliff-face rolls into the valley. All are generating small amounts of heat that is 'lost' to the environment as a source of further activity in what can be pictured as a 'trickling-down of energy' that came originally from the Sun, energizes innumerable natural processes, and ends up as low-grade heat: atoms and molecules vibrating. There it stops. Atoms are the 'end of the line' – a fundamental boundary of physical processes, and thus of the Physical Realm.
The intense concentration of energy within atoms results from the juxtaposition and interaction of two different 'types' of space. An important function of atoms is therefore to act as an interface between these two 'spaces' by means of which influences can pass between them. The implications of this are profound, but are completely ignored by MWS.