Looking into the soul of the universe isn’t just for world-class physicists. It can happen to anyone who ponders the awesome discoveries of science.
When I was a farm boy in rural West Virginia, my grandfather taught me the orbits of Earth and the moon, and I thought it was utterly amazing that these colossal balls weighing quintillions of tons whirled and circled and rolled forever in open space — and that we live on one of them.
When I studied chemistry in high school and learned the combining valences of atoms, I thought it was utterly amazing that this hidden code governs virtually all matter — Earth and the moon, our bodies, trees, water, air. How could atoms lock together into substances because of gaps in their outer layers of electrons — electrons eternally streaking at nearly the speed of light?
Why do the mysterious electrical parts of atoms whirl forever, like the planets and stars?
Why do electrically neutral atoms seize onto each other, just because their outer electrons lack the magic number of eight?
Why do they turn into remarkably different things as they combine? Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are nothing like water, yet they constitute it. Some carbon atoms lock in tetrahedrons to become diamonds; others lock in layers of six-sided carbon rings to become graphite pencil lead.
Why do atoms link into carbon-based molecules that link into amino acids that link into proteins that link into living cells as complex as whole cities — and why does all this link into a thinking, feeling, loving, fearing, aging, dying human?
How can a combination of amino acids write a symphony or join the Republican Party or commit stock fraud or feel patriotism for a section of Earth likewise composed of molecules?
The old “planetary” model of the atom was envisioned like a solar system — orbits around a nucleus. This raised a far-out theory that our solar system might be an atom in some stupefyingly larger universe, and that our atoms might be tiny solar systems with people living on some of the particles. I first encountered this idea in a Captain Marvel comic book.
The great astronomer Harlow Shapley once gave a talk at West Virginia State University. I hung around afterward and asked him, “What’s the name of the theory that atoms might be solar systems?” He glowered at me and said, “The name of it is damn nonsense.” I later learned that it’s called the subatomic universe theory — but Shapley’s name probably is better.
During this period, when I was muddling over the boggling impossibilities that science revealed, I started reading books on Einstein and relativity, and found that his scientific truth was even more astonishing. What our common sense tells us is real can’t be real if space shrinks to nonexistence or time runs slower and stops under some conditions.
I hatched mental experiments that short-circuited my brain. For example, Einstein says the speed of light is the great constant of the universe — nothing can go faster. He also says all speeds are relative between moving objects. Well, if you strike a match, photons of visible light fly out in all directions. If one photon is going west at the speed of light and another is going east at the speed of light, how fast are they separating from each other?
It gets even worse when you read quantum physics. The more I studied, the more I developed an eerie sense that the world we think we inhabit and all existing things are some sort of fiction.
For example, take steel. It can be a 100-foot bridge girder or it can be the coil of a bass piano string, a long wire spiraled into a hard spring. All the curves of that spring are composed of iron atoms locked rigidly to each other in a strong crystal lattice that is nearly unbreakable.
And yet, those atoms are an illusion of emptiness. They are a void of unknowable electrical charges, which don’t actually touch each other. They are virtually a vacuum. They are as empty as the solar system. If you look at the night sky and see how remote the planets are, that’s how remote the parts of an atom are from each other.
If an atom were the size of a 14-story building, the nucleus would be a grain of salt in the middle of the seventh floor, too tiny to be seen. Therefore, heavy, rigid steel doesn’t exist the way we think it does. It’s 99.999999 percent vacuum — as vacant as the night sky.
Sometimes I picture atoms as soap bubbles: empty but bumping against each other and sticking together. The buzzing outer electrons are negative, and they repel the negative electron clouds of adjoining atoms. This holds the atoms apart and gives them an illusion of solidity. Yet, they are bound to each other by valence bonds and hydrogen bonds and Van der Waals bonds and other electrical links.
Atom emptiness is the key to white dwarfs, pulsars and black holes.
At the end of their life cycles, stars explode. Then, what’s left of them collapses, and gravity pulls the collapsing material into incredible density. If the residue is small, compressed electrons in the seething stellar plasma of crushed atoms push back fiercely and resist further collapse. This produces a white dwarf that is nearly impossible to comprehend. The material of a white dwarf weighs around 10 tons per thimbleful. How could something the size of a thimble be so heavy that 100 strong men couldn’t lift it? It might crush a house. A large crane would be required to pick it up.
But that’s just the first step in removing the empty space inside atoms. A teenage genius, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, computed that, if a collapsing star has 1.4 times the mass of our sun, its gravity would be too great to be stopped by the resistance of the electrons. He didn’t know it but he was predicting pulsars, or neutron stars, which later were discovered. Their enormous gravity squeezes the electrons into the nucleus of each atom, where they merge with protons to form a solid mass of neutrons. This material weighs about 10 million tons per cubic centimeter. A c.c. is the size of a bouillon cube. Can you imagine a bouillon cube weighing more than the World Trade Center? But that’s what matter is when the empty space is removed between the nucleus and the electrons of atoms.
It gets worse. Even the packed neutrons in a pulsar are not basic material. They, too, are empty and compressible. If the remains of a collapsing star are 3.2 times larger than our sun, the gravity is too strong to be checked at the pulsar level. The collapse continues until it passes the point of no return — the Schwarzchild Radius — and becomes a black hole, the ultimate pit of gravity, where everything is compressed to nothing.
If planet Earth were squeezed to its Schwarzchild Radius, it would be the size of a pearl. Can anyone imagine the matter of the entire Earth being reduced to fingernail size — but retaining all its weight — and continuing to shrink beyond that point?
This isn’t Captain Marvel comics. Pulsars are real. So are black holes, the astrophysicists say. If they are actuality, then what is our everyday world? And how much real material is in a 180-pound man or a 120-pound woman? Not as much as a dust speck. Not enough to see with a microscope. Our 5-foot or 6-foot bodies, like all material things, are an illusion made of vacuum and whirling electrical charges.
These amazing realities are profoundly important, yet when I try to discuss science with my chums in the news business or music circles or political groups, they look at me as if I’m babbling in the Unknown Tongue. They are highly educated people who know multitudes of facts but they shrug at what I think are the most crucial facts of all.
If religion and philosophy are an attempt to comprehend the universe and the meaning of life, then science is the best portal. Every time I learn another rule of subatomic forces or cell behavior or galactic motion, I get an eerie sense of glimpsing the mysterious code underlying our existence. Physicists often apply the word God to this order, but they don’t mean God in the religious sense.
In a world of supernatural religions, mystical religions, guilt-based religions, violent religions, money-collecting religions, social club religions and cult religions, grasping the code of the universe is the most religious experience I know.