Saturday, September 22, 2007

Glorious Atoms

This is why I homeschool.

Through 13 years of school and Gumbi knows how many bloody little diagrams of solar-system like atoms I never got any kind of firm sense of how an atom was really put or held together. Never! I left school with a loosey-goosey idea that by some quasi-magical way, atoms just worked. It was enough for the school system to know that I graduated with that little solar-system like diagram in my head.

So last week I learned that the diagram was inaccurate. The electrons don't have neat little orbits. A more accurate model is a cloud. This poster (shown below) shows some of the shapes possible and also, just how beautiful science can be.

Tonight I learned what holds the nucleus of an atom together. Now I knew protons had a positive charge. I don't think I ever bothered to think that, of course, they should repel each other rather then stick together in the nucleus. I do think I'd heard of the strong nuclear force. I don't think I'd ever understood what it really meant beyond the quasi-magical bit. But tonight Catherine and I watched a most excellent show called 'Atom' from the BBC. It's actually a three part series but we skipped the first to get to the meatier elements and birth-of-the-universe stuff (we'll go back later) and boy, was it fun.

A photograph of about 500 atoms of Niobium (41) and Selenium (34) neatly arranged at the surface of a crystal (darker atoms are simply lying lower in the surface).

The host used models throughout to demonstrate what he was talking about. Snooker balls were protons. Magnets became protons when he was demonstrating how objects with positive charges should react to one another. The same magnets wrapped with velcro demonstrated how the strong nuclear force overpowered the repelling force. So simple! Now I had a model in my head to consult instead of the quasi-magical feeling. There was more, lots more. I now know that iron is the most stable of elements, why some decay and why some decay. And I know even more which is too much to go into. None of it will get me into the door of a university physics department but it's ridiculously basic stuff that I darn well should have known.

So I'm glad I homeschool my kids. Not only can I make sure they get a solid understanding of things, I can make sure I do. Once again the education of my kids has been the education of me. How awesome is that?


Lorraine M. said...

You know, I downloaded that chart, saved it, looked at it and thought "ohhh, that's pretty, wonder what the heck it is". Thanks for explaining, LOL.

Lorraine M. said...

Ooohhhhh, well now off I go to find that one too, the BBC Atoms. Thanks!

Lorraine M. said...

Oh, and even that solar system chart is very very wrong! The sizing of planets is way off and the distance between some of them would be many feet apart! See

Bill Bryson's chapter two of A Short History of Nearly Everything has some good stuff on this.

Dawn said...

I have a National Geographic poster hanging that shows the proper scale of the planets but nothing the shows (or could show) the proper scale. I think we'll need to do something outside for that.

Thanks for the lead on the Bryson book!