Uncommon Sense

May 16, 2013

Atoms, Argghh!!

Filed under: Education,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:37 am

atomI went to Google Search to see if I could find a public domain representation of an atom for my last post. What I found was crazy making! The diagram at the right is from a U.S. Department of Labor website and is typical of what I found. The only problem with it is that there is nothing correct about it.

These idiotic Atomic Energy Commission style diagrams are absolutely ridiculous. For one, atoms have only two parts, not three. Atoms are made of electrons and nuclei. Nuclei are made from, not of, protons and neutrons. The neutrons and protons are gone, replaced by what they made, a nucleus.

Let me give you a basic example. You know table salt, yes? Table salt is sodium chloride by name and NaCl by formula. It is made from the elements sodium and chlorine, but not of them. “Salt” is white, crystalline and necessary for life. If you exclude all salt from your diet, you will die (it is needed for nerve function, but being highly soluble in water, it will leave your body in sweat, tears, spit, and urine and needs to be replaced).

Sodium is a silvery metal that is so highly reactive it reacts with the oxygen in the air with no provocation needed. And don’t get it near water, it will react with water with explosive fury. Chlorine is a pale, yellow-ish gas that is also highly reactive and corrosive to the point that it is deadly to humans. In salt, you can find no silvery metals, nor any yellowish gas. Those elements no longer exists as they have been replaced by this benign substance. NaCl is made from sodium and chlorine, not of sodium and chlorine.

Similarly, protons and neutrons are fused (melted) together under high pressure to create nuclei. The protons and neutrons are gone, replaced by the nucleus. We know this is true because the nuclei weigh less than the protons and neutrons from which they were made, hence those particles can’t be “in there somewhere” as there isn’t enough mass to constitute those particles. (This is how a whole bunch of electrically positive particles (protons) can be crammed together in such a small space and not be repelled by their “like charges.” They really aren’t there. There is only a single particle with the same charge as the sum of all the proton charges originally.)

Can you see the 100,000 times difference in the width of the nucleus and the atom as a whole? Looks about 7:1 to me.

Can you see the 100,000 times difference in the width of the nucleus and the atom as a whole? Looks about 7:1 to me. Is that honest?

So, the “bunch of grapes” representation of the nucleus (with little “n” and “p” or + and 0 labels) is a bunch of hooey. There are no protons and neutrons “in” there.

The other problem is scale. Consider that the nucleus weighs at least a thousand times more than all of the electrons put together. So, in any atom diagram the nucleus should be rendered with a thousand times more ink than the electrons. But the space the electrons take up is a million billion times larger than the volume of the space the nucleus takes up. Since the nucleus is so small, we must start with the smallest possible dot we can make (a single dot for a single particle), to represent the nucleus and then a roughly spherical wispy volume around it will represent where the electrons are, but that volume must be drawn in using only a thousandth the amount of ink used to make the dot

See the problem. An accurate representation of an atom can’t really be made without the ability to zoom in and out more than a sheet of paper or a static image on a screen allows.

But these grade school phony representations and statements (“the number of protons in the nucleus is . . .”) get carried on into college and university and are misleading and present barriers to further understanding.


  1. And you neglected to mention that these neutrons and protons do not really have these bright green, red or blue colors – they just don’t have any color at all 🙂


    Comment by List of X — May 16, 2013 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

    • Correct, color isn’t a property at the molecular realm! You get an “A” for the day! ;o) (Old teachers never die, they just smell that way!)


      Comment by stephenpruis — May 17, 2013 @ 7:48 am | Reply

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