Inside the Atom

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Have you ever seen a child at play with blocks or other building toys? Many a little boy and girl have spent an afternoon stacking and combining building blocks—sometimes made of plastic and sometimes of wood—creating whatever shapes and structures strike their fancy. Perhaps in their imaginary world they are constructing the buildings of a busy city street, or crafting the walls and towers of a castle, ready for adventure.

It just so happens that when the Creator God crafted the very real world around us, He did something not so very different at all! The entire material substance of this universe—from the giant stars shining in the nighttime sky to the wisps of hair falling on a child's forehead—is constructed from a remarkably small set of beautifully engineered "building blocks" called atoms.

Though each individual atom is so tiny as to be completely undetectable by all but the most powerful specialized devices, atoms together form the substance of all matter in the universe, and their design testifies to the existence of a supreme Engineer of the cosmos. So, by entering the world of the atom, what can we learn of its Creator?

The World Within

Just how small is an atom, anyway? Well, imagine you could shrink to the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Even then, you would still have much, much, much further to shrink to reach the seemingly impossible smallness of atoms, which are about one ten-billionth of a meter across! Roughly three million atoms could fit side-by-side across the diameter of that period!

In fact, the number of atoms in a common household sugar cube is equivalent to the estimated number of stars in the entire universe. Truly the utter smallness of the atom is mind-boggling!

And yet, this infinitesimal unit of matter is not some indiscriminate and featureless object. The humble atom possesses a precisely designed structure that makes it the perfect building block for the remarkable cosmos we see around us.

Were we to shrink further—so small that the atom seemed the size of a large, professional sports stadium—we might be surprised to find that inside the atom there is mostly empty space! Yet there, in the center, we find a vital part of the atomic structure: its nucleus. If our atom were the size of the stadium, its nucleus would be the size of a green pea! Yet it is the tiny nucleus that gives each atom its fundamental characteristics.

Protons and Neutrons

The nucleus of an atom contains two kinds of subatomic particles: positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. Elements are distinguished by the number of protons in an atom's nucleus. Hydrogen atoms have just one lonely proton. Oxygen atoms have eight, while carbon atoms have twelve. The largest naturally occurring atom, uranium, has 92 protons.

In physics, "like" charges repel and "opposite" charges attract, much like what any child experiences when playing with magnets. Yet this does not apply in the nucleus of the atom! A fundamental physical phenomenon known as the "strong nuclear force" binds neutrons and protons together so they do not fly away from each other. Together, they form a stable nucleus that gives each atom its small yet vital "heart."

While the nucleus at the center defines the atom's identity and properties, the outer shells of each atom are occupied by negatively charged particles called electrons. Once thought to orbit the nucleus like planets orbit around the sun, electrons are now known to move in a much more remarkable fashion, jumping around the nucleus from place to place in well-defined "shells" based on their energy levels and determined by the laws of quantum mechanics.

It is the attraction between these different charges—the positive charge of the proton and the negative charge of the electron—that binds electrons to the atom and keeps them in "orbit" about the nucleus, giving the atom its shape and structure.

Because the electrons moving about in their shells form the outside of the atom, they play the most crucial role in chemistry. For instance, when two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen atom to form water (giving it the chemical formula H2O), it is the mutual sharing of their outer electrons that creates the powerful bond between the individual atoms that forms the water molecule.

Building Block of the Universe

This is just one demonstration of the fine tuning built into the atom, which makes it the remarkable "building block" it is. The attraction between protons and electrons needs to be strong enough that the electrons do not simply fly away from the atom, yet it needs to be weak enough that the electrons can interact with other atoms to form the chemical bonds that build the world around us.

There are so many aspects of the atom that make it a wonder of precision engineering! As physicist Stephen Hawking noted in his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time: "The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron.... The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life" (p. 125).

If the atom were anything other than the precisely engineered creation that it is, then ours might be a universe without stars, without chemistry, without matter—without us! Thankfully, though, the atom is a wonder of engineering and design—composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons moving about and interacting in a beautiful and intricate dance, with the laws of physics as their music!

The result of this exquisite dance of particles and forces—the atom—is a master building block, which God has crafted and wielded to create the astonishing universe around us! Everything we see—from the cold, austere granite of the Rocky Mountains to the bright, lively eyes of a laughing child—is crafted of these remarkable little wonders: atoms. The ingenuity of their design is truly a tribute to the ingenious God who made them.

While surely the Apostle Paul had the spirit world in mind, reflecting on the amazing role that these miniscule, atomic building blocks play in the Creation around us, one cannot help but recall his admonition: "By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible" (Hebrews 11:3).

Wonderfully Made!

King David wondered at the remarkable design of his own body and declared to God in praise, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). The hard-won knowledge of chemists and physicists through the centuries has only taught us that the wonder David felt at his design does not cease the closer one looks—it only grows. Not only are we, ourselves, fearfully and wonderfully made, the very "stuff" of which we are made is, itself, a wonder to behold.

We can look at the majesty of the nighttime sky and observe the vastness of space and the stars that surround us and feel the awe that comes with recognizing that your Creator lives! But the atom teaches us that not only at the scale of the very large, but also at even the tiniest and most unimaginably miniscule of scales, the fingerprint of our Creator is present.


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