Basic question on origin of atoms

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Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby SimonZonenblick on September 20th, 2018, 11:36 am 

Hi, I'm apprehensive about starting this thread, as previous experience on physics sites has been very negative when I've approached the subject. I am someone coming back to the study of science after a very long absence, and my only previous experience of physics was at high school, where the lessons were generally disruptive and teachers were likelier to spend time pacifying the mob than dispensing wisdom. I have always found it a fascinating subject and been eager to make up for my lack of education in the area, but unlike any other branch of science I have found its followers to be quite uniquely cutting and dismissive of my admittedly pedestrian questions. So before I go any further, I would simply like to ask that is your response is going to consist of put-downs or ridicule, please do not bother. I realize my questions may seem simplistic to experienced physicists, but to demonstrate that I am being genuine and not pursuing a crank agenda, I am posting in my own name instead of a made up profile name, which I hope goes some way towards demonstrating the authenticity of my enquiries. So here is the first of them:

I am often very confused about the idea of everything being composed of atoms. Presumably the atoms themselves are also made of atoms, but beyond that - where were the atoms of a particular object, person or animal etc before they joined to form that thing? How do they just happen to be present at, say, the conception of a child, or the pollination of a seed? Am I to believe that they are present in the pollen grains themselves, and if so how did they originate? Is anything known or surmised about the actual origins of atoms themselves? Perhaps this strays more into the territory of philosophy than physics, bu answers or ideas are welcome all the same!
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby Braininvat on September 20th, 2018, 11:51 am 

Hello, Simon, and welcome. I am happy to tell you that we have a forum called Beginner Science, which is oriented towards very basic, plain language, approaches to learning about science. I will move this thread there, and hopefully some of our physics-trained members can take a crack at this. It may be helpful if you can indicate any pop science books - or online encyclopedia entries - you may have encountered, and if so, how their approach failed to help. You question seems to range through both physics and chemistry (the latter would concern itself with where the atoms of my own body came from before they were part of me). You question doesn't seem overly metaphysical to me - you will find a good grounding in science, I think, going back to the conditions shortly after the Big Bang which led to formation of matter as we know it.
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby SimonZonenblick on September 20th, 2018, 12:08 pm 

Many thanks. Its hard to pinpoint concrete sources that have led to my confusion, as I'm thinking back over years of half-understood radio items and the like, and my own pedestrian assumptions. I have read Lucretius' De Reum, but though I know it is recognized as one of the breakthrough moments of atomic science, I confess that as a poet, my appreciation of it is more as a poem than a scientific treatise. My interest has recently been re-stoked by Peter Whitfield's book The History of Science, and by Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Ravelli, though I am not sure the latter would be described as pop science or not (though it is aimed at the non-specialist reader, I suppose.) I am soon to read Helen Czerski's Storm in a Teacup, which I imagine will deal with some of these fundamental matters in a fairly accessible way.
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby SimonZonenblick on September 20th, 2018, 6:47 pm 

Perhaps I ought to correct myself: Lucretius' De rerum natura could probably not be described as a book about "Atomic science," which is a term I'm assuming applies mainly to 20th and post 20th C (since the splitting of the atom?) but more accurately Atomism.
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby bangstrom on September 20th, 2018, 7:06 pm 

All matter is made up of atoms so this is the stuff from which all molecules and more complex forms of matter are constructed including plants and animals and everything we see around us. Molecules are collections of atoms and chemistry is the study of how atoms rearrange themselves to constantly form new materials.

Most atoms are highly stable and have been around for billions of years. They are the building blocks for everything in our material world. Atoms are made up of smaller particles known as protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons form the center nucleus of atoms while layers electrons circulate rapidly above. It has been estimated that, if an atom were the size of a sports arena, the nucleus would be the size of a fly at the center so atoms are nearly all empty space. Electrons can drift away from the surface of atoms and the flow of independent electrons is what we call electricity.

Atoms are thought to have formed in the early universe with the two simplest atoms, hydrogen and helium, being the first. Hydrogen and helium are still the most abundant atoms in the universe. Clouds of hydrogen and helium in the early universe were drawn together by gravity to form stars and the heat and and pressure inside stars causes hydrogen atoms to fuse into more helium and several common atomic elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, potassium, silicon, magnesium, iron and nickel. The conversion of hydrogen to helium is the main source of a star’s energy and most common atoms on Earth were formed inside stars.

Some of the larger stars collapse as they lose internal pressure and explode violently with the formation of many more complex atoms beyond iron and nickel on the periodic table. Some of these less common atoms are copper, silver, gold, and uranium. Atoms are formed inside stars and dispersed into space as solar winds or as a result of violent explosions. Gravity gathers this star stuff back together to form more stars and planets so we and our material world is formed from the recycled atoms of ancient stars. We come from the stars and are all star stuff. A good way to learn about atoms is to study chemistry and the periodic table.
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby Reg_Prescott on September 21st, 2018, 12:45 am 

Never trust atoms.

They make up everything.
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby SimonZonenblick on September 21st, 2018, 6:22 am 

Thank you for taking the time to answer. I am going to have to take a very long time to digest Bangstrom's answer, and then to explore all the many new avenues it has opened up in my mind. Fascinating stuff, and very helpful. The question which occurs to me though, at first reading is - and this may seem rather predictable - are protons, neutrons and electrons made of atoms?
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby Braininvat on September 21st, 2018, 9:54 am 

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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby SimonZonenblick on September 22nd, 2018, 9:31 pm 

Fascinating. So when we say everything is made up of atoms, that's only partly true..? Everything is essentially made up of elementary particles, which presumably are themselves made up of...
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Re: Basic question on origin of atoms

Postby bangstrom on September 23rd, 2018, 2:01 am 

... quarks, which are presumably made up of energy and I suspect that is as far down as it goes.
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