Stuff made of stuff that never touches.


Have you ever, while drinking  your 12th beer of the evening, enjoyed a moment of contemplation and wondered ‘what is all this stuff, this…..stuff, made of’? To be imprecise, all stuff in the entire universe is made of…stuff. The same kind of stuff that all other things are made of. This other stuff comes in the form of atoms, electrons, quarks, gluons and other amusing little things.

Atoms, in broad terms, are the building blocks of everything around you – and though everything around you feels solid, it’s not. In fact, nothing is even TOUCHING anything else. No, really. It’s true.

To put that in simplest terms you need to understand two very general things.

1. When talking about charged things – or magnetic things – like repels like and opposites attract. So two things that have a positive charge will repel each other while one thing witha positive charge and another with a negative charge will attract each other. Got a bar magnet? And another bar magnet? Ok, me neither, but if you think back to science classes you may remember pushing the two together. If you push negative to negative, they try their hardest to stay apart. But put positive anywhere near negative and they come together like two hot sweaty blondes in a bath of jelly. What?

2. Um. I forget. Oh yeah, atoms are made of a whole bunch of things. 3 things if you ignore such particles as quarks and gluons. Protons, which have a positive charge; electrons, which have a negative charge; and neutrons, which have no charge, or no net charge to be pedantic.

Here’s a picture of an atom.


To be precise, it’s a helium atom. I’ll leave all talk of atomic weights, isotopes, ions, shells and whatnot for other posts, but for now you know enough to understand how atoms made stuff and why they don’t actually touch.

See the electrons around that nucleus? Thinking back a paragraph or two you might remember that electrons have a negative charge. Now think back to point one, like things repel each other. So two atoms won’t actually touch.

Why the hell then don’t we fly apart into individual atoms and enjoy an atom orgy where no atom actually touches another atom? The answer is simple, an electron cloud(more on this another day) around an atom is attracted to the protons in the nucleus of another atom. The atoms therefore come together but never actually touch. Cool, huh?


ps. Okay, the world of atoms is far more complex and wondrous than this simple article makes it out to be, but I found this all very interesting and simple to understand so I’m outlining it this way. There are many nuances and exceptions I’m sure. I’ll try to cover them in the fullness of time ie. when I have time.


5 Responses to “Stuff made of stuff that never touches.”

  1. 1 robert

    Not the whole story. Please elaborate.

  2. 2 gavor

    You’re completely right, and it’s not meant to be the whole story. Only an overview, the subject in a nutshell and hopefully presented in a way that’s accessible. If it inspires you to do additional study then I’ll consider it a success.

  3. 3 tina

    Thanks, you helped me understand atoms for chemistry class, I agree its just a basic explanation and am lookin forward to future articles!!

  4. is there any electron whose mass is variable. if no? why

  5. Thanks!
    it helped me with my chemistry hw!
    I agree that those ppl above and i hope theres a little more detail next time!

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