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Beyond Atoms: An Intro to Quantum Particles for the Rest of Us Part 3

Atoms: ID 79144798 © Korn Vitthayanukarun |

[Originally published as part of Quantum Particles: An Introduction]

Waves and Atomic Structure

The wavefunction is why electrons can only orbit at certain quantized energy levels.

The wavefunction is why electrons can only orbit at certain quantized energy levels. As electrons in atoms are not normally being observed, they behave like waves. These have a specific wavelength depending on the energy of the electron.

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But the number of wavelengths in the circumference of an electron’s orbit must be an integer (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4, but not 1.5). Why? Because if it were not an integer, then the peak of the wave would overlap with a trough from the previous orbit, and the wave would cancel itself out. Electrons can only orbit in discrete energy levels for the same reason that photons in the two-slit experiment only land in one of the bright zones of constructive interference.

Thus, the wave nature of electrons is responsible for the size of atoms and, to a great extent, how atoms interact with other atoms. This, along with other factors to be discussed later (such as spin and the Pauli exclusion principle), is why various substances have various properties.

So, when God decided that gold should be heavy and shiny and that hydrogen should be light and flammable, He had to design particles with a wave nature and laws of physics that would give rise to all these properties. What a mind!

A Brief History of Discovery

Most students learn in grade school about how atoms are comprised of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The existence of atoms was postulated as early as 450 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Democritus. However, scientific confirmation that all matter is made of atoms came about only in the early 1800s.

Electrons were discovered in 1897 by J.J. Thomson. The proton was discovered in 1917 by Ernest Rutherford, who had previously (1911) discovered that all the positive charge in an atom was concentrated in a central nucleus. The elusive neutron was discovered in 1932 by Sir James Chadwick, for which he won the 1935 Nobel Prize in physics. It may surprise many people that we have only known about the structure of an atom for less than a century.

Of course, the existence of light has been known since the creation of mankind. And the wave nature of light has been known since around 1800. But the discovery that light comes in discrete energy particles — photons — came about in 1905. Albert Einstein made this discovery — the photoelectric effect — for which he received the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics. However, the term “photon” was coined in 1926.

Electrons are thought to be elementary (or “fundamental”) — meaning they are not comprised of smaller particles. Likewise, photons are elementary. But protons and neutrons are composite particles. They are made of smaller particles called quarks. There are six types of quarks, but protons and neutrons are made of only the two least massive types.

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There are other, more exotic particles that are made of other varieties of quarks. Most of these particles are unstable — meaning they will spontaneously change into a different type of particle while releasing energy. There are certain rules that govern what kinds of particles can exist, and how (and whether) they can transform into other particles.

A Hierarchy of Particles

As such, we will find that all quantum particles fall into certain natural families. For example, the electron is a member of a class of particles called leptons. There are six leptons. Particles made of quarks are called hadrons. And while there are many types of hadrons, there are only six types of quarks.

Amazingly, the properties of quantum particles are so mathematical that physicists have been able to predict the existence and some of the properties of quantum particles before they were discovered! For example, physicists predicted long ago that there would be exactly six types of quarks and six types of leptons. We have now experimentally discovered all of them. In fact, all elementary particles predicted by the standard model have now been discovered.

To illustrate how amazing this is, imagine a biologist carefully studying bears, dogs, zebras, whales, and so on. Having never seen or heard about an elephant, the biologist concludes that there must exist a large four-legged grey mammal with a long trunk and tusks based on the mathematical patterns he observes in other animals. Then later, another biologist takes a trip to Africa and confirms the existence of such a creature. Of course, nothing like that has ever predicted the kinds of particles God created based on math!

In other articles, we will look at the various families of particles that God created, along with their properties. We will also explore how these particles transform into others and the rules behind this. When we examine how particles are classified into a nested hierarchy, we will find that there is no secular explanation. However, the natural groups of particles make perfect sense in light of the nature of God, as revealed in the Bible.

Dr. Jason Lisle portrait

Written by Dr. Jason Lisle

Dr. Jason Lisle is a Christian astrophysicist who researches issues pertaining to science and the Christian Faith. You can find his ministry at Biblical Science
Dr. Lisle double-majored in physics and astronomy with a minor in mathematics at Ohio Wesleyan University. He then went on to obtain a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There, he used the SOHO spacecraft to analyze the surface of the sun, and made a number of interesting discoveries, including the detection of giant cell boundaries.
Since then, Lisle has worked in full-time apologetics ministry. He wrote a number of planetarium shows for the Creation Museum, including the popular “Created Cosmos.” Dr. Lisle has authored a number of best-selling books on the topic of creation, including: Taking Back Astronomy, Stargazer’s Guide to the Night Sky, the Ultimate Proof of Creation, Discerning Truth, and Understanding Genesis.

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