Inspired by circumstance, and Wendell Berry, I am learning new skills every week. I know how to halter an uncooperative horse, spot a deer rub, make a decent loaf of bread, repair and paint a deck, color my own hair, and plant a tree in rocky soil. Hopefully I can also learn to drive the tractor, memorize Planck’s constant, and understand Quantum Mechanics.
Quantum Mechanics describes the behavior of electrons as they surround the nucleus. This minute understanding has lead to gigantic inventions like lasers, the atomic clock, transistors, ultra-precise thermometers and even randomness generators. Everything in our world hinges on the exchange and retention of electrons, particles that we can’t even see. Fortunately, we can measure how much energy it takes to move any given electron in any given element. That knowledge has helped us map the patterns that electrons follow. These are officially called ‘orbitals’ and not ‘orbits’ because we do not know their exact path. We do know, thanks to Schrodinger, the areas in which they are most likely to appear. The unofficial term, from Sal Kahn, is ‘schmear’.
The larger the atom, the more schmears are needed to contain the electrons. Schmears are shaped like spheres, dumbbells, and inner tubes. Electrons are completely predictable in the matters of direction of spin, quantity, and sequence of schmear fill. I don’t have any difficulty following the logic and the math that led to the theory of Quantum Mechanics. But when I read that while we can predict the patterns, we still don’t understand the underlying cause of these patterns, I puzzle. When I stop to consider that everything solid is in vibration and that most of the atom consists of the empty space between the nucleus and the electrons, I puzzle some more. Richard Feynman, the late great physicist and White Rabbit said; ” I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics.”
Oh well. Two out of three will have to do.
Next Up: The Heart of the Matter