January 7, 2019 | Henry Richter

Ode to the Amazing Atom

by Dr. Henry L. Richter

Certainly one of the most amazing objects in the universe is the basis of everything: the lowly atom. How atoms exist at all is most remarkable. We can describe them in physical terms, using mathematics, but their “why” is most certainly a mystery. The forces that allow them to form and to exist are truly amazing.

The simplest atom is hydrogen with one proton and one electron; the most complex consist of many, many protons, neutrons, and electrons and the largest are extremely unstable, many undergoing radioactive decay immediately, giving them a lifetime of tiny fractions of a second after being formed.

Atoms are mostly empty space with a nucleus containing the proton and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of circling electrons, all in precise orbits around the nucleus. Protons have a positive electrical charge, electrons a negative electrical charge, and neutrons no electric charge. Why don’t the positive protons attract the negative electrons, and pow! – they would neutralize each other and create a neutron? This does not happen because for some reason the electrons endlessly circle the atom’s nucleus containing one or more protons. Why does this happen? As far as I can tell, no one knows why electrons follow prescribed precise orbits around the nucleus.

The electrons are arranged into shells with a maximum number allowed per shell. As the number increases in more complex atoms, additional shells are formed, again with a fixed maximum number of electrons permitted each shell. The orbits of the circling electrons in each shell arrange themselves so that they do not bump into each other; again, how could this happen so fortuitously?

And also amazing, when two hydrogen atoms combine to make H2 (hydrogen gas), somehow the two electron shells merge to re-form into a figure eight shell. Or when a hydrogen atom loses its electron and becomes a positive hydrogen ion (like in an acidic solution), or in an interstellar plasma, the proton maintains its space. It does not bump into other nearby particles, but remains separate. Sometimes moving with high energy, they do bump into each other causing disruptions.

By simply varying the number of protons and electrons, the chemistry and physics of the resulting chemical element changes drastically. One proton and one electron gives hydrogen. H2 can be a gas, a liquid, or even a metallic solid (believed to exist in the cores of some planets). Make it two protons and two electrons and you still have a gas: Helium. Go to three protons and three electrons and now we have the first metal: Lithium. Jump to six protons and six electrons (plus a few neutrons) and we find carbon, the basis of all life and chemical compounds numbering into multiple hundred-thousands of types, each with its own properties.

Jump to 25 protons and electrons, and you get Iron, in the midst of a jumble of other metals with close numbers of elementary particles. How amazing that such minor changes in the composition of an atom can result in such wide differences in the resulting elementary characteristics!

The beauty of how all the different elements fall into groups of similar characteristics is best shown by the Periodic Table of the Elements, as first proposed in 1869 by the Russian chemist, Dimitri I. Mendeleev (1834-1907).

Pictured below, the table is arranged by atomic number (the number of protons in the nucleus). The vertical columns are elements of similar characteristics. This is the most common representation, but there are other ways to diagram the elements, as March Lorch illustrates at The Conversation.

Can this be considered an accidental universe? Everything has to work perfectly, particularly the behavior of atoms. Wow!

Somehow, when the Universe came into being, atoms were created or formed by some process. We can describe the forces that make sub-atomic particles interact, but forces do not create themselves. They had to be finely tuned for atoms to exist. From the very beginning, they conformed to a scheme that allowed them to remain stable without self-destructing. As explained above, atoms have a configuration requiring negative electrons to assume positions and motions keeping them apart from the positive protons. In the scheme of things, this is a marvelous way to put matter together. How did it happen? It took some unfathomable super-intelligence to do that. And then think of all the atoms in the universe. It is estimated that there are 1022 stars, and probably more than that is the number of planets. All these are made up of tiny, perfectly operating atoms!

Isn’t creation wonderful? From the atom to the universe, everything is finely tuned to allow for beings like us to consider, and ponder the wisdom of the Mind that made it all.

Update 01/09/19: Dr Richter informed us of an article at Chemical and Engineering News by Sam Lemonick that came out Jan 7, “The periodic table is an icon. But chemists still can’t agree on how to arrange it.” Lemonick shares some little-known background about the table’s history, and the predecessors and successors to Mendeleev. The important thing to remember is that the periodicity of the elements is real in nature, but the ways to represent it graphically are human approximations. Exceptions to the arrangement prove the rule: most elements and their properties follow a periodic order, which the most-common diagram exhibits well in a useful way. Richter comments, “I guess we do not need to rewrite the article.”

Footnote: Did you know that 2019 has been declared the International Year of the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements? Did you also know that the discoverer of this order was a Christian and Bible believing scientist named Dimitri Mendeleev? He is our Creation Scientist of the Month to celebrate this year honoring his “iconic symbol of science.” Dr Richter himself is among the distinguished members of our biographical series.

Dr. Henry Richter was born in Long Beach, California, and served a short tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II. From there he received a BS and PhD (Chemistry, Physics, and Electrical Engineering) from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena California. Then he went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became part of NASA. While there he headed up the development of the free worlds first earth satellite, Explorer I. He then oversaw the scientific instrumentation for the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor Programs. From JPL, he went to Electro-Optical Systems becoming a Vice President and Technical Director. Next was a staff position with UCLA as Development Manager of the Mountain Park Research Campus. He then owned an electronics manufacturing business and afterwards became the Communications Engineer for the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. Since 1977, he has been a communications consultant to Public Safety organizations. He is a life member of APCO, the IEEE, and the American Chemical Society. His book America’s Leap into Space details the origins of rocketry and his own role in the launching of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Henry Richter is also author of Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, with co-author David Coppedge (Creation Ministries International, 2016). Creation-Evolution Headlines is honored to have Dr Richter as a contribution writer. See his Author Profile for his previous contributions.

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