Why Can't We Admit That We Don't Have a Clue?

Some ideas of atoms

Thompson thought the atom looked like this
Thompson thought the atom looked like this
This would be like the Bohr model where it all looks like the solar System with nice circular orbits.
This would be like the Bohr model where it all looks like the solar System with nice circular orbits.
Again this is still like the Bohr model.
Again this is still like the Bohr model.
Here is the electron cloud theory that is taught to High School students today.
Here is the electron cloud theory that is taught to High School students today.
Now while this isn't a picture of an atom it represents another theory called the string theory.
Now while this isn't a picture of an atom it represents another theory called the string theory.

What Brought This On?

When I was in the seventh grade, I got real interested in nuclear physics. I must've read eight or nine college texts on the subject. I was fascinated with the history of the atomic bomb, and how nuclear power was supposed to affect our lives in the future. I had everything worked out. I was sure I knew just how everything worked. I gave a lecture to the high school physics class outlining everything that I had learned. I had certainty.

Then the high school physics professor gave me a book! My world was shattered, because in reading the book I realized that no one had a clue as to how the atom was really put together. Now I might have survived this if in all those college physics books, just one person had mentioned that all of this was just theory. I was so upset that I gave up studying science until I got to college.

Now in all fairness, I probably overreacted, but there were college textbooks teaching the Bohr atom as the gospel truth. Nowadays any seventh or eighth grader could tell you that that theory was wrong, and a large number of high school students could tell you why. My point is, that when you're teaching children, if something is a theory it should clearly be stated as such. Now some people might argue that there's nothing you know with absolute certainty, and so should we tell children that we really don't know anything. Well I don't know that we don't know anything. I'm pretty sure that the chair I'm sitting in is solid (though some would argue that it is mostly space) and I'm pretty sure that it's too hot for me outside, since my outdoor thermometer says 103. There are a lot of things we know.

There are some things which we not only don't know, but which would be very difficult to know, since they can't be observed. The atom is just one of those things. There is a theory currently held by some, which I won't get into at this point, because it's very complex, and is argued by many to not exist, and that is string theory. This theory is supposed to tie everything together, but this theory contains about 50 sub-theories. An oversimplification would be that very tiny strings are the basic unit of construction of the universe and that all subatomic particles are composed of strings. This theory would fit in very well with science fiction since it is based on the existence of multiple universes.

So in closing I like to say that I realize nowadays textbooks often state things as theories and that it is probably not a good idea to give kids the impression that we are sure of nothing. The point is that, it is ok to state that something is a theory if we really don't know, and it is not ok to state something as an absolute truth if we are only guessing.



Comments 1 comment

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mega1 7 years ago

You are probably right - but what if there IS no clue?

The whole subject blows my mind. But its fun. String theory kind of presupposed that the atom is not the smallest particle, then, eh? gosh Do you study the Chaos theory also? Or has it all gone much further than that? My theory re Chaos involves camouflage - fun huh.

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