About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

The Story of Energy: The Physics of an Atom, Part 1

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Cover art by Michael Edwards.

Cover art by Michael Edwards.

Through the series Mr Tompkins by George Gamow, and decades later, a single work, Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, the reader is able to take a tour with the characters, Mr Tompkins and the reconstituted Alice, to a world that appears physically implausible to our quotidian yet very real. The range of that experience exists outside our consciousness unless we can partake in time travel, move at close the speed of light, or navigate a timescale that is at the micro of a microsecond (or more). Additionally, you would require an energy level that is likely to make you spontaneously combust in your meat suit.

 Jacket design by J.C. Suarès for Copernicus, an imprint of Springer-Verlag.

Jacket design by J.C. Suarès for Copernicus, an imprint of Springer-Verlag.

And yes, there are actually very serious, non-science fiction types of discussion on the feasibility of time travel (I touched lightly on that subject in my very first Scientific American blog post) that you can find in books such as Paul J Nahin’s Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction,  Jim Al-Khalili’s Black Holes, Wormholes, and Time Machines, and Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek. But such discussions will be for another post.

Time Travel, from

Time Travel, from

To live the life of an atom, or even the ‘organs’ constituting the atoms (the electrons, protons, neutrons, neutrinos, quarks, mesons, any other exotic microscopic physical entity you can think of), one must imagine oneself in a world similar to the ones Mr Tompkins and Gilmore’s Alice each occupies. Physicists resist the idea of thinking about the physical atom as merely particulate although biologists have no qualms in thinking that.

Image from

Image from

But really, the atom is probably a higher dimension creature (something that string theorists would like to see happen) whose manifestations of particular properties are based on what we are able to observe of them.  In our three-dimensional world (even it we count time, that merely allows the curvature or space to be accounted for, and not much else), we can only see whatever characteristics the atom is able to manifest under such circumstances: some magnetic properties, spin, energy levels, rotational direction, and wave-like functions when it interacts with another atom.

The atom had fascinated philosophers of old, from Democritus to Aristotle to Lucretius to Leibniz to Newton. It also fascinated fiction writers and artists. There was the idea of the atom as a particle in ancient Greece (but I think most of you reading this know that), and, between the 18th and 19th century, there was also the idea of the atom as being a field, conceptualized in the early 19th century as the theory of vortex.1

Image from

Image from

The people grappling with the idea of the vortex atom were also the ones trying to work out the problem of certain observable paradoxes in thermodynamics relating to certain behavior of the atoms. The theory fell into disrepute by the mid-nineteenth century, though not the concept of the atomic field; otherwise, we would not have the beginnings of the gauge interactions, also known as the interactions of the known particles of nature, that are important to shaping the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

Image from

Image from

Less we think only boys come out to play here, there were also women involved, even if their involvement were not as well publicized. While Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and their little troop over in France were making progress in their study of radiation with only the most rudimentary understanding of the character of the atom, given that much of the work leading to understanding its nature only took place in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the German-Jewish-Austrian women in the form of Marietta Blau and her assistant, Hertha Wambacher2, were doing their experiments with nuclear isotopes with the help of their portable emulsion unit that are the fore-runners of the films used in the cameras of the twentieth century.

Marietta Blau. Photo from

Marietta Blau. Photo from

Their experiments were rudimentary versions of what the accelerators are doing today, though the idea is not novel, since people like Chadwick and Rutherford were also doing some bombarding of their own over at Cambridge, England. However, Blau and Wambacher perfected the emulsion technique that enabled them to isolate and capture very sharp and detailed images of the interactions at the nucleic level. Their work was going on at around the same time when some other guys were looking at the same sort of collisions but at the cosmic level, through the cosmic rays.

Hertha Wambacher. Image from

Hertha Wambacher. Image from

Cosmic rays are high-energy charged particles that have their origins in extra-terrestrial and possibly extra-galactic sources. However, upon entering the atmosphere of the earth, showers are produced through the atmospheric decay of the nuclei of the particles, which are then captured through detectors such as the ones found at the LHC. Nevertheless, there is still a layer of mystery about the rays that the physicists are attempting to understand better, though their knowledge is increasing everyday through data obtained from research in high energy astrophysics and particle physics.

They are also foundational to the study of neutrinos. Interest in neutrino physics came about as the result of the physicists’  attempts at resolving the enigma surrounding the conservation of momentum and energy of the protons, electrons, and neutrons.  Neutrons were produced in greater abundance when large nuclear reactors were built in the aftermath of the Second World War. The physicists found that the laws of conservation were violated because of the possible existence of a third element that was neither proton nor electron.

An illustration of the cosmic rays by Simon Swordy of the U of Chicago.  Image from

An illustration of the cosmic rays by Simon Swordy of the U of Chicago. Image from

According to the law of conservation, the disintegration of neutron should produce equal part electrons and equal part protons, but this was found not to be the case. Therefore, Enrico Fermi named it for a particle which is supposed to exhibit zero mass and zero charge (a sort of ‘virtual’ particle at that time) so as to counteract the ‘shortfall’ that would have resulted from the proton and electron not being consistently emitted as a ‘neutrino.’ More of the story of the cosmic rays can be found in this lucid paper by Alexander W Stern, who was also one of the important players in the story of quantum mechanics.3

Later, physicists would begin to think about how the collisions of this atomic matter, at different energy levels, could result in the possibility of reproducing, in tiny doses, the conditions that had enabled the formation of our universe. In fact, even as they are keeping an eye on what is going on at the cosmic level, through cosmology and astrophysics, they are trying to understand the extend in which some of the physics are replicated at the atomic level. This was what drove the decades of work that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, though that was not, by all means, the only important discovery.

They want to know how understanding a specific property of strong interaction at the subatomic level can help explain why so much of our universe is constituted of dark matter. They also want to know if understanding more about the properties of the atom would allow them to understand how gravity, currently a bit of an outcast in quantum theory, can be connected to all the other atomic level interactions that are going on. Most importantly, they want to understand how the atom constitutes the meaning of life at the most fundamental level, though this is more of a big picture comprehension than an attempt to answer a specific scientific question.

Image from

Image from

The atom is singular in its reduction to itself, in that it does not contain or uphold the metaphysical. However, the very notion of thinking about the atom, external to quantifiable and objective measurements, already sets up the way in which we would like to think about the atom. Otherwise, how did we end up with the tragicomedy that is Schrödinger’s cat, that story of a long-distance relationship between Alice and Bob, and the parable of how one twin ages but not the other when the former decides to take a short holiday in space alone, and a paradoxical personality disorder that is maybe not so paradoxical if we think of its behavior statistically, or, think of the atom as being legion rather than singular, a particle-field hybrid.

Image from

Image from

The big boys who pioneered the way we thought about physics in the twentieth century spilled the ink (of their fountain pens), quarreled, and wrote papers arguing that they each had a better explanation on what the electron, and therefore the atom, is like. Is an atom wave-like or a particle, and what mathematics is the best way for describing its physical state? In fact, besides coming up with mathematically infused and experimental analysis of the atom, they also wrote what later became the narratives of philosophy of quantum physics.4 The conversation about interpreting that atom began from the time when one among them got interested in what the atom was like and decided to write about it for his PhD dissertation on the electron theory of matter.

The atom dances at the center of an attempt at conciliation between supposed definite properties (and therefore, strong sense of certainty) in classical physics and one where causality can only be partially spied through the effects observable of the properties as found in quantum physics.

The Solvay Conference of 1927, featuring some of the who’s who in quantum theory.

The Solvay Conference of 1927, featuring some of the who’s who in quantum theory. Image from

However, atoms live in a micro-evental level where quantum rules dominate the operation.  Although we might be able to use classical mechanics to talk about some of their properties, such as in the case of thermodynamics and the black body, there is a threshold limit to when that changes and one has to then speak of the atom as exhibiting the behavior of quantum effects. One of the way of thinking about the atom across these two spectrum has been through the idea of the simple harmonic motion (SHM). The SHM allows us to think about an oscillating atom, when put in the same space as a bunch of other atoms, as producing certain effects that could then be visualized through the use of specific calculus, such as integration. The SHM connects the mathematics that operates in the classical physical world with that of quantum physics.

The atom can exist at zero-point state (some like to equate that with the vacuum state), when it is at the lowest energy and temperature state, but for the most part, it is always in motion (even if the motion is vibrational). It has presided over the study of developments not only in thermodynamics but also in electricity and magnetism. Faraday, who did not at all know anything about the developments of the modern theory of the atom, given that his work took place in the early part of the nineteenth century, intuited the notion of the electric current in terms of electromagnetism. However it took both Maxwell and P.A.M Dirac to put all of that into mathematical perspective. But Faraday understood the connection between that and the developments that were also going on in physical chemistry at that time (which had the idea of elements, their breakdowns and chemical bonds even if not our current way of describing them), and wrote about it in his fifth series of the Experimental Researches in Electricity that had appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1833, the same journal that Bohr would publish his doctoral work in 1909.5

The atom decays over time, breaking down through chains of fission (rarely fusion since that consumes a lot of energy. However, that might change with the building of the first fusion reactor) and branching out into new child modes with each decay over its lifetime. The decay happens at the level of its nucleon, and the energy emitted is considerable. This is what had enabled the development of medical technology through radiation physics and nuclear medicine. At the same time, the degeneracy (or energy positions of one or more sub-atom particle at any single moment in time), allows for the development in laser physics and in precise time telling (as precise as one can get) through the atomic clock. The February of this year, for a winter school relating to Timing and Transformation in Switzerland, I had produced a poster on the ontology of time as represented in quantum level physics, and even created a comical sketch to accompany it!

Whatever the constituent level in which we are looking at, and regardless of the energy level of our interest, the study of atom has been spread broadly, over the course of more than a century, and over the study of many subfields in physics. Many instruments of great sophistication and wonder had been developed, and continue to be developed, for the study of the atomic figure. In December 2012, I gave a talk at Oregon State University while a resident scholar with its History of Science Special Collections and Archives that incorporated the subject of instrumentality and instrumentation that grew as a result of the connection between developments in nuclear and particle physics. You can find that here, with accompanying slides.

It is in thinking about the atom and what it can do that we have arrived at the interpretation of its myriad possibilities and potentialities in quantum mechanics, or why a physical entity can even be thought of as possessing a measurable quantity. But, there are many operations at the physical state, including the physics of life, that are not necessarily measurable in the mechanical sense, only because the interactions are less direct, and involve multiple bodies that are neither subatomic nor at the leve of quantum energy. This is where we then enter into the study of complex systems and how that is then used, instead, for thinking about the dispersal and cycles of energy at a more macroscopic level. But at this level, we are no longer thinking about the atom as a single atom in itself, but rather, as the conglomeration of many to create life at the level of a single organic cell and beyond. But complex level systems also involve inorganic bits of life that are built out of the same atomic system. Therefore, the atom itself, broken down to its most basic level, problematizes the anthropic principle: what constitutes life at a measurable or quantifiable level?

In the next installment, I will discuss networks of energy and information involving the idea of teleportation that is one of the new (or not so new) developments in quantum computation found in the work of foundational physical theorists and experimentalists. This is also where I will bring up the connection between the cybernetics of informational science and quantum information through the work of historical figures such as Von Neumann and Von Foerster, both born into the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


1See Kragh, H. (2002), The Vortex Atom: A Victorian Theory of Everything. Centaurus, 44: 32–114. doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0498.2002.440102.x.

2 More details on their work can be found in Peter Galison’s Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, chapter three. Also, see Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early Twentieth Century Vienna by Maria Rentetzi, which can be found online <>.

3…24S. Also if you are interested in some prehistory of the developments of interpretation in quantum mechanics, you might be interested in this letter be John A Wheeler (advisor to Richard P Feynman) and Alexander W Stern

4 I suggest reading Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth-Century, as a good place to start, and you can go on from there, through its exhaustive list of bibliography.

5 See


Clarissa Ai Ling Lee About the Author: Clarissa Ai Ling Lee is a Phd Candidate in the Literature Program at Duke University, specializing in science and technology studies and comparative media studies. She also possesses an undergraduate degree in physics and a MA in English from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. She blogs alternately at Unquiet mind of an academic libertine and Epistemic Circus. Follow on Twitter @normasalim.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 18 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jtdwyer 11:49 am 07/19/2013

    I’m reading this article with interest but, to pick a quick nit:
    “To live the life of an atom, or even the ‘organs’ constituting the atoms (the electrons, protons, neutrons, neutrinos, quarks, mesons, any other exotic microscopic physical entity you can think of)…”
    As I understand, while some nuclear processes produce neutrinos, it hardly seems correct to list them as one of the constituents of atoms…

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:01 pm 07/19/2013

    I am enjoying this article, but I am compelled to object:
    “In our three-dimensional world (even it we count time, that merely allows the curvature or space to be accounted for, and not much else), we can only see whatever characteristics the atom is able to manifest under such circumstances: some magnetic properties, spin, energy levels, rotational direction, and wave-like functions when it interacts with another atom.”
    As I understand, even in quantum theory time is a critical element in describing the progression of particle processes (such as decay) and interactions. Some quantum processes even seem to progress in reverse! Even bugs singing in the trees are cognizant that evening is approaching…

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 12:33 pm 07/19/2013

    Aside from my picky nature, I did enjoy this article! I do have one last request: clicking on the inset chart “The Standard Model of Fundamental Particles and Interactions” credited to only presented the same tiny image. The chart certainly looks interesting – is there a link to a larger, legible version available?

    Link to this
  4. 4. jgrosay 1:43 pm 07/19/2013

    An excerpt from the book by Edith Stein on ‘Finite and eternal being…’ Chapter IV: ‘Essence, substance, shape and matter’, about different types of reality:
    *Communist reality: ‘One for all’.
    *Anarchistic reality: ‘All against all’.
    *Atomic reality [the one that can't be broken into pieces]:’Each for itself’->(And god against all, said Werner Herzog) Salut †

    Link to this
  5. 5. Francis Higgins 2:56 pm 07/19/2013

    As soon as I see mention of Time travel or teleportation I know I am in cloud-cuckoo land. Bereft of the ability to reconcile observed effects such as the Refraction of the Matter-wave function to explain Gravity, e.g. Photons and matter refracted by the Mass of the Sun, I thank God Einstein is not with us, or he would take up crochet work. However, he is probably ‘spinning’ in his grave.

    Link to this
  6. 6. clarissal 3:17 pm 07/19/2013

    HI jtdwyer
    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the difficulties of a nuanced and subtle analysis of QM in relation to the world. And in relation to your question, you can find the SMPP chart here

    Link to this
  7. 7. Quantumburrito 3:47 pm 07/19/2013

    Huggins, time travel is a natural and simple consequence of special relativity so perhaps you may want to reconsider calling it cuckoo.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Satya Narayan Tiwary 5:41 pm 07/19/2013

    This article is interesting and amusing mind. Quantum world is weird. Transition from physical world to quantum world or vice-versa is highly sensual.

    Link to this
  9. 9. David Cummings 8:06 am 07/20/2013

    Excellent overview. I look forward to your next installment on quantum teleportation.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Xenon 10:30 am 07/20/2013

    I enjoyed very much your article, but I am interested in energy per se.

    For example, M-theory (string theory) claims that energy is a string or loop. Have you given some thought as to what energy is, or might be, intrinsically? Will you?

    Link to this
  11. 11. jtdwyer 5:24 pm 07/20/2013

    Hi Clarissa,
    Thanks for the link, although it seems I need a new display! BTW, the linked Wheeler-Stern letter is fascinating!

    Link to this
  12. 12. clarissal 7:19 pm 07/20/2013

    Hi Xenon,
    That is the purpose of my series, to think about what we already know, or think that we know, about energy at the most fundamental level before going into the most exotic. Of course, I am interested in understanding how theoretical understanding then translate not only into experiment but into useful real-world applications that have been, or not yet been, invented.

    My reference to complex theory system, and my intention of exploring it via informatics in the next installment is part of my interest in how the notion of energy, while still situated within the laws first enunciated through physical theories, could look like when thought in terms of the physical aspects of biological systems and cybernetic systems that straddles biology, chemistry, and physics (broadly speaking). Von Neumann is an interesting guy in thinking about this given that his most fundamental work in statistical QM, and he does a lot of stuff on energy, had allowed him to branch out into thinking interdisciplinarily about similarly related objects.

    I have not thought as much on whether I would actually be looking into how the fundamental unit would look like when we go from thinking about particulate measurements to branes and strings, but some recent work I have done on the philosophical of measurements in relation to the engima of quantum gravity has got me thinking about that.

    It appears I have to extend this series on energy beyond the original triptych idea to dig deeper and include more angles, as long as the editor has no objections. :)

    Link to this
  13. 13. clarissal 10:25 pm 07/20/2013

    Yesterday, I have not properly answered jtdwyer’S comments. I appear to be rather flippant about ‘time’ as part of the fourth dimension, and seemingly ignoring the ‘arrow of time’ that even Boltzmann had referred to in his work on thermodynamics. That has not been my intention as I am negotiating the difficulty of considering time from a ‘spatial’ angle and appreciate both its mathematical and symbolic difficulty. But I agree on the need for greater clarity in explaining this complex issue.

    I probably will devote some space, in later episodes, to disentangling the notion of time more clearly, which I know is a very important point for analyzing the gap between classical and quantum mechanics, and particularly in thinking about energy.

    To clarify on the neutrino, I did not mean to say that is a part of the atom the way neutrons, electrons, and protons are. I am playing conceptually with the term ‘organs’, both visible and invisible,that make up the atom in terms of the different parts and constituents that go into its embodiment, even if the embodiment is not directly literal. But I can see now how that can be misunderstood.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, as they are useful for helping me think about how this story can be better continued.

    Link to this
  14. 14. gesimsek 6:30 pm 07/22/2013

    No arrow for time, only entropy. Some call it “ashes to ashes”.

    Link to this
  15. 15. rufusgwarren 1:44 pm 07/23/2013

    It appears to me as a simpler problem. Since each atom may have different energy and the breakdown of a neutron into a proton should we not consider the change of charge as a radiator. In fact any change of state up or down is a radiator or absorber.

    The problem for me is what the heck is charge?

    Link to this
  16. 16. Dr. Strangelove 5:19 am 07/24/2013

    Good article Clarissa. I don’t think there’s an arrow of time in thermodynamics. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is not absolute. Entropy is reversible in statistical thermodynamics but extremely improbable. There may be an arrow of time in cosmology pertaining to the beginning and end of the universe. But if Stephen Hawking’s no boundary condition holds true, the universe would be finite and unbounded. No beginning, no end, no arrow of time. Physicists seem to dislike the arrow of time. Einstein once said we physicists believe the distinction between past, present and future is just a persistently stubborn illusion.

    Quantum teleportation is already a reality. Michio Kaku wrote about successful experiments on this. The really exciting thing about teleportation is faster-than-light communication. Physicists are saying it’s impossible because the signal is random. I disagree. I can design a simple system using the random signal to communicate. We can analyze the random signal since it obeys probability theory.

    Von Neumann’s contribution to quantum mechanics is his mathematical proof that no deterministic theory can replicate the results of quantum mechanics. But he gave two conditions: the theory must not exhibit non-locality or more than 4-dimensional spacetime. Interestingly, non-locality had already been demonstrated in experiments by violation of Bell’s inequality, and string theories are multidimensional. Even Bohr and Schrodinger in the 1920s already realized that the mysterious probability waves of an electron are multidimensional.

    These imply that von Neumann’s conditions have been violated. A tantalizing prospect that Einstein might be right after all. God does not play dice.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Dr. Strangelove 10:32 pm 07/25/2013

    Clarissa, I’m looking forward to your Part 2. Please consider the fascinating topics of quantum teleportation and FTL communication and von Neumann’s mathematical proof of non-deterministic quantum mechanics. Many hidden-variable theories have been proposed for quantum mechanics. But if von Neumann is correct, he had disproven these theories long before they were proposed.

    Von Neumann is one of my favorite. A prolific mathematical genius. Dr. Strangelove was a dark comedy, many believe to be a parody of John von Neumann.

    Link to this
  18. 18. clarissal 9:51 am 08/4/2013

    In case anyone is still interested, Allan Franklin in Experiment, Right or Wrong, cited a work by A.O. Barut on the bounding of neutrinos with electrons in a magnetic well, or what is referred to a narrow resonance state. Obviously, one does not see this iterated in most texts on the neutrinos

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article