I am a Christian. I believe in the God of the Bible, in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I believe in Genesis 1:1 - "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (NIV)" I am a biochemist and a pharmacist by education. As such I have a desire to understand nature. I am writing this blog as my way to express the facts of true science as I understand them, from the perspective of one who believes that all things were created by God, for God and for His purposes.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Atomic Glue - The Force That Holds the Atom Together

The concept of an atom was first proposed centuries ago, as far back as the 5th or 6th century BC. Democritus, an Ancient Greek philosopher coined the term "átomos" (Greek: ἄτομος) in 450 BC, which means "uncuttable" or "indivisible." Until the 1800s it was thought that this was the smallest particle of matter. Indeed atoms are if you consider matter to be restricted to the elements of the periodic table. We discussed the basic structure of the atom back in June in the "Of Atoms and Elements" blog.

Then it was discovered that atoms were composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus and have the most mass and the almost weightless electrons orbits the nucleus in an empty cloud shell. An atom is really 99.999%+ empty space. In 1874, G. Johnstone Stoney postulated a negatively charged electron and in 1897 J. J. Thomson discovered it, the first subatomic particle. Ernest Rutherford's 1907 gold foil experiment showed that the atom is mainly empty space, with almost all of its mass concentrated in a tiny atomic nucleus. Thus the quantum theory was born. In 1918, Rutherford confirmed that the hydrogen nucleus was a single positively charged proton and he speculated that all other atomic nuclei contain charge-less particles, which he named neutrons. James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932.

Even more recently two of the three particles were found to be made up of even smaller particles. Electrons are a type of Lepton, an elementary particle. Protons and Neutrons are Baryons, composite particles made of three Quarks each. A Proton is composed of two up quarks (2/3+) and one down quark (1/3-). A Proton is positively charged. A Neutron is composed of two down quarks (1/3-) and one up quark (2/3+) and has no charge. A quark is also an elementary particle, one of only 18 predicted to exist. And thus begins the very complex world of Particle Physics.


Credit: Wikipedia

Now with the nucleus of an atom made up of positively charged particles and neutral particles, and since like charges repel one another, what holds the nucleus together?

To explain this we need to look at the four fundamental forces of nature, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity.

Now most of us understand the concept of gravity - what goes up must come down, Newton's apple and all that. There is really much more to it than that but for today's discussion this is enough. Basically gravity is what holds objects of mass together, particularly objects of large mass, such as the planets and the stars. We also know the basics of electromagnetism. Who among us has not played with a magnet and iron filings to see the patterns we can create. But again there is more to that story as well, suffice it to say electromagnetism is the force that holds atoms together (the force behind chemical bonds).

The other two forces act at the very close distances of the nucleus of the atom. The weak nuclear force is what holds the individual particles together to prevent radioactive decay and the strong nuclear force is what actually holds the whole nucleus together, bonding the protons and the neutrons. The strong nuclear force is a form of atomic glue. The ability of the strong nuclear force to hold an atom’s nucleus together exceeds the protons’ natural tendency to push apart when acting at the very close distances found between the nucleons. As the spacing gets larger, the electromagnetic force takes over and the protons repel each other.


The Strong Nuclear Force
Holds the Atomic Nucleus Together


The strong nuclear force is created between nucleons by the exchange of particles called mesons. The nucleons must be within the diameter of a proton or neutron of each other for the exchange to happen. If they can get this close, the exchange of mesons can occur, and the particles will stick together. If they are further apart, the strong nuclear force is too weak to hold them and other forces move the particles apart. The formation of elements requires a great deal of energy like that found in the stars where almost all of the natural elements were created.

Without this force to hold the atomic particles together, matter could not exist. Could this force be the hand of God? None of this explains how particles have mass. Without mass, even with the strong nuclear force, matter would not exist. There is yet another force predicted in quantum physics described by the Higgs Mechanism, a theory that states the Universe is filled with a type of electromagnetic field which induces the appearance of mass in particles as they pass through it. Scientists are working as we speak to find the "God particle", the Higgs boson, which will validate that the field of the Higgs mechanism does indeed exist. All of this leading up to the ultimate goal - the Theory of Everything. We will look at the Higgs boson in a future blog.

Colossians 1:17 - "He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together. (NLT)"

And when He lets go:

2 Peter 3:10 - "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (NKJV)"

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