Thursday, December 29, 2011

No empty space in atoms

The Bad Astronomer writes about a UK BBC TV video:
Why are atoms mostly empty space?

Professor Brian Cox is a physicist in England, very well-known there as a popularizer of science. ...

I like to use the example of sitting in a tub, and rhythmically pushing your body along its length with your toes. ...

Electrons around an atomic nucleus work the same way. It’s more complicated than your bathtub, but the principle is the same. The electrons can only exist where the wave crests and troughs add up correctly. They literally cannot exist anywhere else. They’re like standing waves, as Brian shows.
It is bad science to say that atoms are mostly space. If electrons are like standing waves, as Cox and Plait say, then most of the volume of atoms consists of standing waves, not empty space.

Saying that an atom is empty space suggests that something could be put in that empty space without affecting the atom. But that cannot be done. The explanation that atoms are mostly empty space assumes electrons are particles that can be isolated. But that is contrary to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the rest of quantum mechanics.

The latest post from the Bad Astronomer wants to stop a certain type of vaccine information, and make an emotional appeal about a dead baby. Maybe he is a little out of his expertise.

See also the defense of becox of this statement from the video:
The Pauli exclusion principle means that no electron in the universe can have the same energy state as any other electron in the universe, and that if we does something to change the energy state of one group of electrons (rubbing a diamond to heat it up in his demo) then that must cause other electrons somewhere in the universe to change their energy states as the states of the electrons in the diamond change.
He is talking about a theoretical effect that is not measurable unless the electrons are very close. I think that it is a bizarre and unscientific point. It is like saying that my finger has a graviational effect on Venus. If so, it is negligible and unobservable.

Cox replies:
The more "presentational" question posed by some on the forum - namely that one shouldn't say that everything is connected to everything else for fear of misinterpretation - is interesting. In my view, the interpretation of quantum theory presented above is not only valid, but correct in the absence of new physics - and therefore everything IS connected to everything else. I was very careful to point out in the lecture that this does not allow any woo woo shite into the pantheon of the possible, as I think I phrased it.

My general position is that when communicating with the public we shouldn't spend our time triangulating off nutters. I'm having to deal with this in spades in my current series, Wonders of Life, where it is tempting to try to give creationists no ammunition at all by avoiding areas of doubt when describing the origin of life and the evolution of complex life on Earth. My strategy is to ignore such concerns, because these people shouldn't occupy any of our time! If we tried to take account of every nob head on the planet, we wouldn't have time to make the programs or write the books.
What is he saying here? The idea that everything is connected to everything else seems contrary to causality. If that is what Cox means to say, then he ought to say whether it is contrary to causality. Otherwise, what does it mean, but to hint at woo woo?

I guess I agree that a TV show on the Wonders of Life should not censor facts favorable to creationists, but why is he even tempted? Scientists should not be at all bashful about saying what they do not know, even if the creationists have an explanation.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this repeated in another blog and wondered where it had come from. I didn't know it came from Cox because I never watch him. He has a mixed reputation in the UK, although regular TV viewers seem impressed by him.