Among the welcome spate of documentaries about science on tv at the moment, two this week make great play of the physical scale of things. The immensity of the universe, the insignificance of we humans, the almost total emptiness of atoms – that sort of thing.
The programmes are Wonders of the Universe by Professor Brian Cox and Everything and Nothing by Professor Jim Al-Khalili.
In his programme, Brian Cox spent some time describing the makeup of an atom.
He stood in a semi-desert landscape and picked up a golf ball sized stone. He then explained that if this pebble was the nucleus of an atom its electrons would be circling at a considerable distance away, somewhere near that hill in the distance. He pointed to a hill that was perhaps a few kilometres away. What’s more, he continued, those electrons would be unbelievably, unimaginably minute, the size of mots of dust. The whole atom would be almost completely empty space, with its component parts being almost insignificant to boot. The atom hardly exists.
I’m always uncomfortable when the use of physical scale is used in order to convey a feeling of awe over the immensity of things (such as the size of the universe) or the seeming insignificance of things (such as the insubstantiality of atoms).
Our appreciation of scale and distance is very subjective, and is based on our everyday needs here on earth. Anything smaller than, say, a poppy seed, is generally too small for us to spend time over, and any distance greater than that which we can travel in a reasonable amount of time is hard to grasp.
So discussion of the physical scale to things that are way beyond the our everyday experience is rather a problematic approach to their appreciation.
An atom may be 99.99999% empty, but the emptiness is irrelevant. What matters is the effect of the atom.
If Professor Brian Cox took that golf ball sized pebble and he threw it at you, hitting you in the eye, would he be able to get away with it by eulogising that “Incredibly, amazingly, that pebble is made up of atoms that are – unbelievably – almost entirely empty space. In very real terms, that pebble hardly exists”?