Oxygen Atom with Electron Clouds, Hydrogen and Water Clusters
How and where will the secret of life be found? In my youth I was taught that an atom was the smallest fundamental unit of all matter. In my young mind, I reasoned that the mysteries of how all things work must be found in the atom. I was so enamored by this concept that I ended up studying atomic physics in college and later went on to earn my Ph.D. in that field. The answers to the universe, I thought, must be found in how the atoms work. After all, there only exist a grand total of less than 100 stable types of atoms. Out of those, there are only 20 or so necessary for basic life processes and the vast majority of the molecules of life are combinations of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Sulfur– only six of them. In the innocence of youth, I reasoned, it should not be too hard to figure out how everything works; it’s like putting together tinker toys or Legos where only a few different types of Legos exist. I may have underestimated just a bit how many different things you can build with just this limited set of “Legos”.
In my college career, I learned that atoms are governed by a set of quantum mechanical laws and symmetries that determine how atoms are built and can fit together to make molecules. Predictive models can be built, mathematically, to describe how single atoms interact with surrounding atoms. These models make use of the concept of “fields”, such as electric fields, magnetic fields, gravitational fields, etc. that describe how atoms interact with each other and the fields that exist around them. The behavior of each particle is characterized and influenced by the fields that the particle itself generates and the fields that surround it. In a sense, we can experience this concept by playing with common refrigerator magnets. We notice that if we orient magnets a certain way they will attract each other, by some sort of invisible “field” and yet in other ways they will repel each other, and so there are only a limited number of configurations that allow them to stick together to form structures. Electric fields that we observe, by rubbing balloons on cloth, for example, also follow physical laws. These observable but invisible fields are formed from the alignment of trillions of trillions of fields from the individual atoms that make up the objects, each atom possessing its own fields and following similar types of laws.
There are only four types of fields we know of in nature. The “gravitational” field is so weak that you need objects the size of a planet before you can really feel it, but it is far-reaching and stretches across the entire universe. In sharp contrast, the “strong” field only acts over a distance the size of a proton, but is a trillion, trillion, trillion times stronger than the gravitational field. The strong field sticks the protons together when they get close enough to each other; otherwise the clusters of protons in a nucleus would fly apart. The “weak” field binds electrons and protons together to make neutrons. But the king of the fields, of course, is the “electromagnetic” field that causes electrons to be attracted to protons, electrons to repel electrons, and protons to repel protons. The electromagnetic field causes the electrons to move in and buzz around the clusters of protons in the nucleus, which are bound together by the strong fields. The electrons spread themselves out around these clusters of protons to form atoms. All of this amounts to atomic field theory. The combined fields from all these particles inside the atoms also serve to attract and repel the neighboring atoms and cause the atoms to arrange themselves and “stick” together into structures called molecules.
If we were somehow to look at matter on its most fundamental level, we would see that everything we sense, experience, and know to be real is composed of trillions of trillions of fundamental particles that are simply following the governing laws of what is known as field theory. Everything is made up of tiny particles floating around in space like electrons, protons, and neutrons that are spinning and rotating around each other at blazing speeds. All of these tiny sub-atomic particles cannot be modeled as individual solid objects. They don’t have solid boundaries but are best characterized by the fields that they create and how they interact with each other. What we perceive as being a solid surface is formed because these particles have organized themselves into structures that “stick” together, much like stacking a bunch of charged floating magnets together to form a floating surface of magnets where the motion of each magnet is restricted by the fields generated by the neighboring magnets.
For example, if we place our hand on a table or surface, we sense pressure when the electromagnetic fields from the array of atoms in our hands push against the fields from the array of atoms on the surface. As the atoms of the surface are pushed by the fields of the atoms in your hand, the atoms of the surface will slightly flex out of place and push back on the atoms in your hand. Your hand will not be able to go through the surface without breaking the bonds that hold the surface atoms together. If we could somehow magically turn off the electromagnetic fields, there would be more than enough space to allow the atoms in your hand to pass through the atoms of the table. The electromagnetic field prevents this from happening. Not only does it hold atoms together by attractive forces, it keeps atoms spaced apart by repulsive forces and acts over relatively large distances on the atomic scale. It’s as if these fields are super-charged refrigerator magnets floating in space, strong enough to attract or repel each other even when they are several lengths away from each other.
The field properties that make these atoms align and stick to each other describe and determine all the properties of matter. For example, if the electromagnetic fields from the atoms on the surface of the table were aligned so that they would attract the atoms in your hand, the surface would be considered “sticky” and you might have difficulty removing your hand from the table. It is the configuration of atoms bound together in these molecules that gives them their characteristics , which are used to interact with all of the other molecules in their local environment. In turn, the way the molecules interact determines the properties of all matter and explains what all things are and how all things work on the most fundamental level.
As we have attempted to visualize what things might look like if we were the size of an atom, it may be helpful to realize that the electrons are moving at several million miles per hour on average. The atoms on a surface are interacting with each other over a million, million times a second and a typical inch of surface is tens of millions of atoms long. Anything large enough to see– like a speck of dust in the sunlight– consists of many trillions of atoms and anything large enough to feel, like a salt crystal, consists of a billion, billion atoms. You need to realize that everything is extremely small and extremely fast on the atomic scale. The surface of your table on an atomic scale would look like a vast system of mountains and valleys made of vibrating molecules stretching off into infinity in all directions.
When we consider all the incredible complexities of life, it is no surprise that everything comes down to how the molecules are formed, put together, and how they interact inside the living cells and tissues. The basic fundamental secrets of life, we might suppose, are found in how the molecules themselves are formed, how they interact with other molecules in their environment, and how they shift and change over the course of their existence. At first, it seems a bit strange to fathom how all life can be composed of molecules–a bunch of whirling particles following a set of physical laws and fields– and how this can lead to sentient, conscious beings that are self-aware, can act for themselves, and have learned enough to discover and ponder the very principles that allow themselves to exist. This might be an open question, yet there is no denying that on the most fundamental level, we are composed of molecules and yet we hold the breath of life within ourselves.