Atoms are solar systems? Um, no…

Suddenly there’s a hubbub of girlish voices to one side of the crowd.  “Go on, Jeremy, get up there.”  “Yeah, Jeremy, your theory’s no crazier than theirs.”  “Do it, Jeremy.”

Sure enough, the kid’s here with some of his groupies.  Don’t know how he does it.  He’s a lot younger than the grad students who generally present at these contests, but he’s got guts and he grabs the mic.

“OK, here’s my Crazy Theory.  The Solar System has eight planets going around the Sun, and an oxygen atom has eight electrons going around the nucleus.  Maybe we’re living in an oxygen atom in some humongous Universe, and maybe there are people living on the electrons in our oxygen atoms or whatever.  Maybe the Galaxy is like some huge molecule.  Think about living on an electron in a uranium atom with 91 other planets in the same solar system and what happens when the nucleus fissions.  Would that be like a nova?”

There’s a hush because no-one knows where to start, then Cathleen’s voice comes from the back of the room.  Of course she’s here — some of the Crazy Theory contest ring-leaders are her Astronomy students.  “Congratulations, Jeremy, you’ve joined the Honorable Legion of Planetary Atom Theorists.  Is there anyone in the room who hasn’t played with the idea at some time?”

No-one raises a hand except a couple of Jeremy’s groupies.

“See, Jeremy, you’re in good company.  But there are a few problems with the idea.  I’ll start off with some astronomical issues and then the physicists can throw in some more.  First, stars going nova collapse, they don’t fission.  Second, compared to the outermost planet in the Solar System, how far is it from the Sun to the nearest star?”

A different groupie raises her hand and a calculator.  “Neptune’s about 4 light-hours from the Sun and Alpha Centauri’s a little over 4 light-years, so that would be … the 4’s cancel, 24 hours times 365 … about 8760 times further away than Neptune.”

“Nicely done.  That’s a typical star-to-star distance within the disk and away from the central bulge.  Now, how far apart are the atoms in a molecule?”

“Aren’t they pretty much touching?  That’s a lot closer than 8760 times the distance.”

“Yes, indeed, Jeremy.  Anyone else with an objection?  Ah, Maria.  Go ahead.”

“Yes, ma’am.  All electrons have exactly the same properties, ¿yes? but different planets, they have different properties.  Jupiter is much, much heavier than Earth or Mercury.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Jim speaks up.  “Different force laws.  Solar systems are held together by gravity but at this level atoms are held together by electromagnetic forces.”

“Carry that a step further, Jim.  What does that say about the geometry?”

“Gravity’s always attractive.  The planets are attracted to the Sun but they’re also attracted to each other.  That’ll tend to pull them all into the same plane and you’ll get a flat disk, mostly.  In an atom, though, the electrons or at least the charge centers repel each other — four starting at the corners of a square would push two out of the plane to form a tetrahedron, and so forth.  That’s leaving aside electron spin.  Anyhow, the electronic charge will be three-dimensional around the nucleus, not planar.  Do you want me to go into what a magnetic field would do?”

“No, I think the point’s been made.  Would someone from the Physics side care to chime in?”

“Synchrotron radiation.”

“Good one.  And you are …?”

“Newt Barnes.  I’m one of Dr Hanneken’s students.”

“Care to explain?”

“Sure.  Assume a hydrogen atom is a little solar system with one electron in orbit around the nucleus.  Any time a charge moves it radiates waves into the electromagnetic field.  The waves carry forces that can compel other charged objects to move.  The distance an object moves, times the force exerted, equals the amount of energy expended by the wave.  Therefore the wave must carry energy and that energy must have come from the electron’s motion.  After a while the electron runs out of kinetic energy and falls into the nucleus.  That doesn’t actually happen, so the atom’s not a solar system.”

Jeremy gets general applause when he waves submission, then the crowd’s chant resumes…

.——<“Amanda! Amanda! Amanda!”>Bohr and Bohr atom

~~ Rich Olcott


Prelude to A Shell Game

Big Vinnie barrels into the office.  “Hey, Sy, word is that you’ve been trash-talking Niels Bohr.  What’s the story?”

“Nothing against Bohr, Vinnie, he was a smart guy who ran a numbers game out of C-town —”

“Which C-town, Cincy or Cleveland?”

“Copenhagen.  But he got caught short at payoff time.  Trouble is, some people still think the game’s good which it’s not.”

Hydrogen spectrum
Hydrogen spectrum, adapted from work by Caitlin Jo Ramsey
(CC BY-SA 3.0)
via Wikimedia Commons

“Which numbers game was this — policy, mutuale, bolita?”


“Never heard of that one.”

“Rydberg was a Swedish physicist in the late 1800s.  He systemized a pile of lab and astronomy data about how hydrogen gas interacts with light.  Physicists like Lyman and Balmer showed how hydrogen’s complicated pattern (the white lines on black on this diagram) could be broken down to subsets that all have a similar shape (the colored lines).  Rydberg found a remarkably simple formula that worked for all the subsets.  Pick a line, measure its waves per meter. There’ll be a pair of numbers n1 and n2 such that the wave count is given by  Rydberg equationZ is the nuclear charge, which they’d just figured out how to measure, and R is a constant.  Funny how it just happens to be Rydberg’s initial.”

“Any numbers?”

“Small whole numbers, like 1, 2, up to 20 or so.  Each subset has the same n1 and a range of values for n2. The Lyman series, for instance, is based on n1=1, so you’ve got 1/1–1/4=3/4, 1/1–1/9=8/9, 15/16, 24/25, and so on. See how the fractions get closer together just like those lines do?”

“Nice, but why does it work out that way?”

“Excellent question, but no-one had an answer to that for 25 years until Bohr came up with his model.  Which on the one hand was genius and on the other was so bogus I can’t believe it’s still taught in schools.”

“So what did he say?”

“He suggested that an atom is structured like a solar system, planar, with electrons circling a central nucleus like little planets in their orbits. Unlike our Solar System, multiple electrons could share an orbit, chasing each other around a ring.  The 1/n² numbers are the energies of the different orbits, from n=1 outwards.  An electron in a close-in orbit would be tightly held by the nuclear electrical field; not so much for electrons further out.”

“Yeah, that sounds like what they taught us, alright.”

“Bohr then proposed that an incoming lightwave (he didn’t believe in photons) energizes an electron, moves it to a further-out orbit.  Conversely, a far-away electron can fall inward, emitting energy in the form of a lightwave.  Either way, the amount of energy in the lightwave depends only on the (1/n1²–1/n2²) energy difference between the two orbits.  The lightwave’s energy shows up in that wave number — more energy means more waves per meter and bluer light.”

“Ah, so that Ly series with n1=1 is from electrons falling all the way to the lowest-energy orbit and that’s why it’s all up in the … is that ultra-violet?”

“Yup, and you got it.  The Balmer series is the one with four lines in the visible.”

“Uhh… why wouldn’t everything just fall into the middle?”

“Bohr said each orbit would have a capacity limit, beyond which the ring would crinkle and eject surplus electrons.  He worked out limits for the first half-dozen elements but then things get fuzzy, with rings maybe colliding and swapping places.  Not satisfactory for predictions.  Worse, the physics just doesn’t work for his basic model.”No Bohr

“Really?  Bohr was a world-class physicist.”

“This was early days for atomic physics and people were still learning what to think about.  The Solar System is flat, more or less, so Bohr came up with a flat model.  But electrons repel each other.  They wouldn’t stay in a ring, they’d pop out to the corners of a regular figure like a tetrahedron or a cube.  That’d blow all his numbers.  The breaker payout, though, is his orbiting electrons must continually radiate lightwaves but don’t have an energy source for that.”

“Was he right about anything?”

“The model’s only correct notion was that lightwaves participate in shell transitions.  Schools should teach shells, not orbits.”

~~ Rich Olcott