In this Exercise, you will be getting an idea of the world of small.
Now, we are told that there are 3 million layers of atoms in that penny. Atoms all arranged in a tight formal structure, three million layers thick. That’s how tiny atoms are.
Now imagine that we could look at an individual atom – now a physical possibility with the latest electron microscope. The best we can do is to get an idea of relative dimensions. An atom consists of a nucleus made of particles known as protons and neutrons, around which revolve in orbit tiny electrons. To get an idea of relative sizes, we need to imagine that the nucleus of the atom is like an orange at centre of a baseball field. Gnats flying around at the outside of the field would represent the electrons. (There are of course limitations to this image: the atom is a sphere, so these “gnats” are circling the centre in all directions!)
That is all there is to the atom. Outside the orange at the pitcher’s mound and the gnats flying high above, there is nothing. Let that sink in! The single atom is made up of almost no matter at all. Relatively speaking, the atom is almost entirely empty space! Of the volume of a standard baseball field, the only matter in it are an orange and a bunch of gnats. That’s it. Nothing else.
Return now to the copper penny: 3 million layers of almost nothing at all is still almost nothing at all… And yet, with our eyes, we can see only “stuff”… We don’t see empty space at all…
If you could now look at the nucleus of that atom, the picture changes dramatically again. We imagined the nucleus as our orange at the pitcher’s mound… Now, we blow that up to the size of the baseball field… Again, vast, empty space with particles – muons and leptons and other strangely named particles – are blinking in and out of existence, randomly, as it were. At this level of reality there is an indeterminism built right in to the nature of reality.
So now we can conclude that even that so-called mass of an orange at the pitcher’s mound is itself almost nothing but empty space…
Now consider this: if all space from every atom that made up our body were removed, it would collapse to a tiny fraction of a grain of sand. Atoms are 99.99% space. What then is your human body? What are you if you are 99.99% empty space?
Yet when I slam my hand on the table, I hurt myself. If 99.99% of matter is space, what is prohibiting my hand to penetrate through the table? Forces! The very forces that hold this universe together. In the end, what we experience as solid are force fields built around certain concentrations of energies.
Reflect on this incredible strangeness. What is the nature of the universe, then? Is matter an illusion? To what degree are you able to free yourself from thinking of this universe in terms of “stuff,” matter, and think in terms of energy and forces? What changes in your understanding of God and the Universe if, in fact, we accept that all that we experience is primarily an interplay of energy and forces?
Let’s return to this notion that we ourselves are 99.99% empty space. Remove that space, and there you are, smaller by far than a grain of sand… All of you – your hair, your eyes, your feet… All the matter that you contain, smaller than a grain of sand… Then what are you? Touch your skin… Is this “matter” you are touching? Hardly! Perhaps it’s nothing more than forces; than energy fields. In a sense, we are an illusion...
This emptiness permeates you. You are more emptiness than you are created particles. In what ways does this change your understanding of the world in which we live? Remember Einstein’s e=mc₂? Energy and matter are equivalent. One can convert into the other. Perhaps it is true that we live in a universe more of energy than of matter…
What do you find most useful – least useful – about these reflections? What part of your personal view of things needs to be changed, is confirmed, by these reflections? How does that make you feel? What questions does all this raise for you?