Birth of the Atomic Age?

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

  • Genesis 2:7

One person dies in full vigor,
    completely secure and at ease,
well nourished in body,
    bones rich with marrow.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having enjoyed anything good.
Side by side they lie in the dust,
    and worms cover them both.

  • Job 21:23-26

Why do you not pardon my offenses
    and forgive my sins?
For I will soon lie down in the dust;
    you will search for me, but I will be no more.”

  • Job 7:21

“From the 6th century BC … onward, philosophers began to consider whether the universe was made from a single fundamental substance.  During the 5th century BC …, two philosophers from Abderra in Greece, named Democritus and Leucippus, suggested that everything was made up of tiny, indivisible, and unchangeable particles, which they called atoms (atomos is Greek for uncuttable).
“Democritus and Leucippus also claim that a void or empty space separates atoms, allowing them to move around freely.  As the atoms move, they may collide with each other to form new arrangements of atoms, so that objects in the world will appear to change.  The two thinkers consider that there are an infinite number of these eternal atoms, but that the number of different combinations they can arrange themselves into is finite.  This explains the apparent fixed number of different substances that exist.  The atoms that make up our bodies, for example, do not decay and disappear when we die, but are dispersed and can be reconstructed.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Thank you, for the free download.  I had this curve in my Nuclear Engineering Book by Samuel Glasstone, but I have resorted and reboxed books so many times recently, I cannot find it.

I have heard the discussions on the four basic elements alluded to in the quote, that all things came from earth, wind, fire, and water.  The ancient philosophers had difficulty explaining it.

But, through Chemistry and Physics in high school and college and Philosophy in college, I do not think that Democritus (460-371BC) and Leucippus (early 5th century BC) ever entered the conversation, but their theories are astounding, roughly 2,000 years before people experimented enough to prove them right.  Even then, our microscopes were not strong enough to see these little things, these atoms that Democritus and Leucippus considered uncuttable. I apologize for not mentioning them in my nuclear physics textbook, which remains classified.

We think of the twentieth century as the Atomic Age.  We had a race with Nazi Germany as to who would make the bomb first.  We then harnessed the energy of the nuclear reaction to produce electrical power.  Yet, we feared the “enemy” would use the bomb and the utility companies would make a mistake with the nuclear reactor.  In the end, getting a license to start a new nuclear reactor is nearly impossible.  They emit no greenhouse gases, but the fear factor is higher than the fear factor of the polar ice melting.  It is a shame considering the recent power outages in the deep South during the recent winter storms.  The “green” darling, the wind farms, failed.  Plenty of wind, but the windmills froze and would not turn.

And yet with the concept of the Atomic Age being recent, two philosophers who lived roughly 2400 years before us had figured it out, but maybe not completely.  They discovered the “atom,” but even in naming it that, they could not imagine an “uncuttable” thing being cut.

But, it amazes me in how much they got right.  I hate ending with what they got wrong, but come on, they got so much right.

Let’s start with the void around the atom.  In creating a nuclear chain reaction, we know that we can send a neutron into something that is solid, and it might just miss everything, flying out the other side.  Rather than the atom having a “void” around it, it has an electron cloud, part of the atom itself.  Based on bonding energy, crystalline structure, and other factors, the atoms may be tightly or loosely spaced in what we consider a solid mass, like a steel ball bearing, for example.  So, if a neutron needs to be absorbed into the nucleus of the atom, where the densely packed protons and neutrons are, how do we hit the target?  Like any target from archery to the rifle range, we need to know how big the target is.  For nuclear targets, that is measured in barns, 10 to the minus 28 square meters.  Yeah, really tiny.  But something that has more barns of cross section is easier to hit.  Anything can absorb that neutron, but the philosophers were right.  It is mostly empty space.  I have asked, and the nuclear physicists just rolled their eyes.  “Do they call it ‘barns’, because neutrons can’t hit the broad side of a barn?”  One old friend that I would play cards with at lunch time is the only nuclear physicist that I have ever heard laugh, and he had such a wonderful laugh.  Sorry, I have done some research, and I cannot find the etymology of “barn” as a measurement of area.  What these ancient philosophers got right is that the volume of each atom is mostly empty space.

It may be a quaint way of putting it that the atoms move around and could possibly collide with one another, forming different things, but that is what chemical reactions are.  Take some carbon, say twelve atoms, twenty-two atoms of hydrogen, and eleven atoms of oxygen.  Let those “collide” in just the right way and you get sugar.  When you put it that way, how could something like that happen by mere chance?

And to think of our steel ball bearing, it is mostly iron, but there is a carefully controlled amount of carbon in its crystalline structure.  In fact, it probably has more carbon than your steel refrigerator door.  The door is softer, allowing it to be formed into the shape of the door, but the ball bearing must not deform into an egg shape.  It has more carbon in it to make the crystalline structure resist deformation.  While humans discovered the properties of steel centuries ago when they wanted railroad rails to remain hard and the steel for body armor to be hard, yet soft enough to shape, God designed it from the beginning.

And now for the infinite and finite.  In 1860, Stanislao Cannizzarro appeared at the Karlsruhe Congress to present a great discovery, Avogadro’s number, 6.02214076 time ten to the twenty-third power.  Or as Lee Strobel might put it, 0.602214076 time a trillion trillions.  (Note: we lived in Karlsruhe a little over 100 years after that congress.)  What is Avogadro’s number and why is it not Cannizzarro’s number?  Amedeo Avogadro died four years before, in 1856, unable to publish his findings.  Cannizzarro must have been a humble man, knowing that Avogadro did the bulk of the work, not wanting to take the credit himself.  Wow!  That is a lesson that would fall on deaf ears in the science world of today.  But what does the number mean?  Avogadro postulated that for an amount of a substance where you have the atomic weight in grams, you will have roughly 0.6 trillion trillions of that substance.  Let’s look at Sodium, Na (for Natrium, same thing in a different language).  The atomic weight of sodium is roughly 23 grams per mole.  So, if you have 23 grams, or about one twentieth of a pound, you will have 0.6 trillion trillions of sodium atoms.  Or a pound would be roughly 12 trillion trillions of sodium atoms.

Please, do not drop that metallic sodium in a pond.  It will explode.  Pure lithium does the same thing.  I drove by a building right after a lithium explosion occurred.  No one was hurt.  The scientist took the lithium out without realizing that the humidity control was off in the laboratory.  When he saw a bead of moisture condense on the ingot, the ingot size of a soft drink can, he dove behind a blast shield just in time, It wrecked the lab and created about a 20ft diameter hole in the building’s wall.  Now you may know why I became concerned when we lived across the street from a beryllium lab and in the winter, the pipes froze and flooded the lab.  The beryllium was safely stored, and nothing happened, but it got tense until I got our plumbers in to fix the problem.

But back to the sodium.  That is a lot of sodium atoms in just one pound.  Now look at our world.  It is mind blowing having that many tiny atoms, but since matter cannot be created or destroyed (at least by us), there is still a finite amount, regardless of how big it is.  But each star in the sky has its own atoms.  These stars, for all I know, have their own planets floating around them.  And as we gaze in our high-powered telescopes into parts of space that we thought were empty, we find even more that we had never discovered.  Is it possible for the number of atoms to be infinite?  Only God knows, yet two ancient philosophers felt it possible.  And to them, a few million of anything might be too many to count, thus to them infinite.

And since matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed (except by God), how can the Big Bang start with an infinite supply of matter and energy?  It cannot, unless God spoke it into existence.

And yet, these ancient Greek philosophers also postulated that the different types of building blocks were finite.  They may have been surprised to learn that there are 92 naturally existing elements, from Hydrogen to Uranium.  They might have thought, ‘That many?’  A few more have been added in nuclear laboratories and reactors, maybe 118 in total.  So much of these man-made elements live such brief lives, it becomes hard to realize if they really existed.  Two man-made elements of note are Plutonium and Californium.  Plutonium, used in atomic bombs, is also used in electrical power generation.  In fact, the breeder reactor is the concept that a nuclear reactor can, as it produces energy, create its own fissile material to extend the life of the nuclear fuel, creating plutonium from the non-fissile Uranium-238.  As for Californium, there is an isotope that spontaneously fissions, producing roughly five neutrons with each fission.  This isotope of Californium can be used as a seed, to start the fission process.

Thus, the two ancient philosophers were again right, or at least maybe right.  The number of atoms in the universe could be infinite, but mankind has a problem even conceiving the infinite.  And the number of different types of atoms is indeed finite.

Yet the uncuttable is cuttable.  And even then, it is not.  Wait!  Nuclear fission splits the atom into two pieces.  The pieces are shown in the Dolly Parton curve above, and can you now see why it is called the Dolly Parton curve?  Some of that mass is turned into energy.  That is the entire point of E equal to mc squared!!  But what you will find is that some of the mass of fissile material is really bond energy to hold all those neutrons and protons (protons all positively charged) in a tight formation at the nucleus of the atom.  Could we say that this bond energy is “glue?”  In the fission products, all the electrons, protons, and neutrons are accounted for, but the energy comes from the “glue” going up in smoke, so to speak.

Wait, that hardly seems like enough energy to warm a light bulb, but you must be forgetting Avogadro’s number.  There were trillions of trillions of those tiny pieces of glue.

And as for not disappearing when we die, let’s look at the last poetic statement from Job above.  The first Scripture talks of us being made from dust.  That is so odd when today’s dust is made of a lot of dead skin cells.  God’s dust must have been something different, but Job uses that concept of coming from dust and returning to dust often (back to the atoms where we started perhaps).  The last quote from Job 7:21 states that he will die, and his friends will simply not see him anymore.  After all, he will be dust, and someone will sweep that dust away.  Yet, the ancient Greek philosophers are again correct.  We are made of oxygen (65%), carbon (18%), hydrogen (10%), nitrogen (3%), calcium (1.4%), phosphorus (1%), and many other minerals.  There may no longer be life in the body, but those elements become part of the dust.

As for the life, it goes on in the soul after we die.  We need to know that our soul is right with God.  Our concepts of physics and chemistry may be wrong, but we must have a “right” relationship with the Creator of all things.  For while the body remains and all its chemical constituents turn to dust, we live on, but do we live in glory with our Savior or do we live in eternal damnation?  Turn to God and repent.  He loves you and He wants you to live with Him for eternity.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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  1. Linda Lee/Lady Quixote March 2, 2021 — 11:20 am

    Fascinating. But seriously, how did Democritus and Leucippus figure out so much about atoms in the 5th century, long before the invention of microscopes! Hmm.. maybe God showed them in a dream?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That could be. The more I dig into the ancient philosophers, and BC is appropriate as they are Before Christ, I get the idea that God was working within them. Not that they were “finding God”, but that they established these schools that searched for the “truth” and then the Truth came along and the Gospel spread rapidly among the Gentiles, in Asia Minor and Greece, where those schools were located. I do not believe in coincidences.

      Liked by 1 person

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