Mind-boggling facts about atoms to get your head spinning!

Sep 15, 2016 | Science

Atoms are the smallest constituents of ordinary matter. The idea that all matter around us is made up of small, discrete units appeared in ancient cultures such as Greece and India. In fact, the word “atom” (meaning ‘indivisible’) was coined by ancient Greek philosophers long before science began examining the concept of atoms!

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”

Democritus

All solids, liquids, gases and plasma is composed of atoms. Indeed, all that we see around us are basically the result of interactions of atoms at a fundamental level. They are very small with typical sizes around 100pm (ten-billionth of a meter). Yet no body, living or non-living, would exist without them. An atom is made up of electrons and a nucleus (containing protons and neutrons). The nucleus makes up more than 99.94% of an atom’s mass!

Because they are invisible to the naked human eye, it’s quite hard to imagine their scale and numbers. To help you get a perspective, here are 5 facts that’ll make your jaws drop!

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1  Atoms in humans

A typical human body weighing about 70kg contains 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms! That’s 7 billion billion billion atoms or a billion billion times the total human population. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen account for 99% of the total atoms (by count) in a person. What’s even more mind-boggling is that 98% of these atoms are replaced every year, without us even realizing!

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2  Atoms and Apples

Atoms are incredibly empty. An atom is like a mini-solar system; the tight nucleus playing the role of Sun orbited by electrons like planets. By volume, the nucleus and electrons are so small that an atom is theoretically 99.999% empty space. So, technically, if we remove all the space between atoms, we could fit the entire human population into an apple!

(From a physics point of view, this is not entirely true because electrons have a “wave function” that describes where it is. What this means is that while the electron itself has a small volume, it is spread out over a relatively big volume)

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3  Atoms and teaspoons of water

Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world and makes up 20% of the total surface area of Earth. To put that in perspective, it’s area is greater than the largest 3 continents put together – Asia, Africa and North America. At its deepest, it can stack up to 19 Empire State Buildings. How many teaspoons of water would it contain? A lot, isn’t it? An estimate is about 6.3x1022 teaspoons. Now fathom this, the number of atoms in a single teaspoon of water is about 3 times that number- meaning, 3 times the total teaspoons of water in the Atlantic Ocean!

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4  Atoms, DNA and Earth-Sun trips

DNA are the molecules that carry genetic instructions. The DNA molecules are made up of a few kinds of atoms – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus. DNA do not exist as single molecules but rather as strands of molecules entwined together. If all the DNA in a single human cell is stretched out, it would form a very thin thread about 2 meters long. There are about 1013-1014 cells in the human body, implying that the total length of DNA would be in the range of 2x1013-2x1014 meters. That is the equivalent of nearly 70 trips from the Earth to the Sun and back!

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5  Atoms, Chess & Universe

Chess is a pretty tough game to play. This seemingly simple game, played with 32 pieces, has a large number of possibilities. Well, large is an understatement actually. The total number of positions in Chess as calculated is about 1040. If that seems huge, consider this- the number of possible games that can be played is about 10120 (Also called Shannon Number)! Now, the total number of atoms in the observable universe is in the range of 1078 – 1082. So, in spite of the mind-boggling and unfathomable number of atoms in the universe, the number of possible iterations of a game of Chess is much, much larger! I told you Chess is a tough game to play, didn’t I?