Are Atoms Tiny Solar Systems?
by Ron Kurtus (revised 31 May 2009)
The Bohr model—or solar system model—of the atom describes atoms as consisting of a nucleus with a number of electrons in orbits around that nucleus, similar to a solar system. Because of this, people have speculated that perhaps atoms are like tiny solar systems.
Since our own Solar System consists of a sun in the middle with eight smaller planets rotating around it in their orbits and the element Oxygen has a nucleus and eight smaller electrons rotating around it in their orbits, you could imagine that there is a similarity between the two. Likewise, perhaps our solar system is an atom in some larger entity.
Although recent studies have shown that the Bohr model of the atom is probably not correct—or at least incomplete—the concept of tiny solar systems has captured the imagination of many people.
Questions you may have include:
- Is it possible that atoms are like tiny solar systems?
- Is it possible that our solar system is really an atom in a bigger universe?
- What are some problems with this idea?
This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion
Atoms as solar systems
According to the Bohr or solar system model of matter, every atom consists of a nucleus with a certain number of electrons rotating about the nucleus in their orbits. The nucleus is much larger than the electrons. These particles are assumed to be very small spheres or ball-shaped. This is similar to the configuration of a solar system, with a large sun in the center and planets rotating in orbits around the sun.
Is it possible that the atomic level represents a smaller universe of some sort?
Oxygen and our Solar System
Look at the example of the element Oxygen, which consists of a nucleus and 8 electrons in orbit. Our solar system has our Sun and 8 planets in orbit around it. Is it possible that the third electron from the Oxygen nucleus is similar to the third planet from the Sunour Earthexcept on a very small and different scale?
Perhaps there are even tiny little people or animals living on that electron. When they look out through their tiny telescopes at the other atoms and molecules around them, perhaps they think they are looking at the whole Universe. This may be stretching our imagination, but is it a possibility?
Pluto creates an ion
But what about Pluto? It used to be considered a planet, and it does orbit the Sun. However, it is no longer considered a planet and may have been a large asteroid that had captured into orbit by the Sun.
Just as an extra electron in orbit around the Oxygen nucleus would make the atom an ion, so too would the extra asteroid rotating around the Sun make the Solar System a form of "solar ion" or such.
Solar systems as atoms
Following that train of thought, perhaps solar systems are actually "atoms" in a much larger universe. Some stars are very large and some are much smaller than our Sunjust as some atomic nuclei are large and some are small, depending on their atomic number and weight. The rotating galaxies could be like rotating eddies in a liquid or gas.
Since there is this similarity, is it possible that each solar system is really an atom in some physical system?
Atom or Solar System?
Our solar system could be similar to Oxygen, while others may be like Chlorine, Iron or Uranium. In fact, the Universe we see through our telescopes may be just the collection of billions of atoms that are in a larger Universe.
Perhaps we are even part of the atoms on another gigantic living being!
Problems with idea
There are some problems with the idea of atoms being tiny solar systems. Scientific studies in the area of Quantum Mechanics have shown that at the quantum or atomic level there are added rules of physics that restrict the activities and appearances that are allowed on a larger scale.
Probably not tiny spheres
This theory states that electrons, protons, neutrons and the nucleus are probably not tiny spheres. The most common theory is that electrons are spread out in the form of a cloud. Another theory is that electrons look like tiny strings. Since these particles are too small to be seen in a microscope, what they look like is pure speculation.
Do not rotate in orbit
Also, quantum theories state that electrons probably do not rotate around the nucleus in an orbit.
When electric charges move, they create a magnetic field. When the charges change directions, they give off electromagnetic radiation. If electrons rotate in orbits, they would give off such radiation, which they don't. Thus, scientists believe that electrons are stationary in a shell around the nucleus of an atom, perhaps as a cloud. On the other hand, perhaps that radiation rule does not hold when an electron is in an orbit or shell.
Can't be proven
Of course, none of this can ever be provenat least not in our lifetime. But it shows that there is a lot more to what is around us than we realize. Thinking and speculation on this sort of thing can be fun to do. Science fiction writers have used such speculation to write stories and movies for use to enjoy.
Look beyond what is obvious. Examine similarities and trends in order to draw some conclusions or create a theory. That is what science is all about.
The Bohr or solar system model of the atom states that atoms consist of a nucleus with a number of electrons in orbits around that nucleus, similar to a solar system. People have speculated that perhaps atoms are tiny solar systems. Perhaps our own Solar System is similar to the element Oxygen, which has a nucleus and eight smaller electrons rotating around it in their orbits.
Likewise, perhaps our solar system is an "atom" in some larger entity. Although recent studies have shown that the Bohr model of the atom is probably not correct or is incomplete, the concept of tiny solar systems has captured the imagination of many people.
Enjoy life by being curious about the world around you
Resources and references
The Bohr Model of an Atom - University of Tennessee Knoxville Astrophysics
The Quantum Mechanical Model of the Atom - SparkNotes
Quantum Mechanics - Wikipedia
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Are Atoms Tiny Solar Systems?