We are less than dust
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:14
What are we made of? How ‘real’ is the world? What does it mean to exist?
Have you ever wondered about things like this? We humans like to ask questions, but sometimes the answers make us uncomfortable. Yes, we exist. Yes, the world is real. But, the reality of our reality is very, very strange. You see, we are made of almost nothing. Everything we see is mostly made up of empty space. This is shocking when you first realize it, but let me explain.
We and everything we can see are made up of atoms. The atom is an amazing thing. It has a dense centre called a nucleus and a cloud of electrons surrounding it. Inside the nucleus are protons and neutrons. The nucleus is held together by incredibly strong forces that act at only short distances. And since ‘opposite charges attract’, the positively-charged protons in the nucleus attract the negatively-charged electrons that reside in a ‘cloud’ surrounding the nucleus.
How do we know this? The structure of the atom has taken hundreds of years and tens of thousands of experiments to figure out. There is still much we do not know, but scientists have developed an atomic theory that describes everything we do know. They have also made successful predictions, like the existence of a particle called the Higgs boson, the discovery of which made international news. In fact, as of today there is almost no evidence that atomic theory is wrong.
Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! Psalm 89:47
But this is where things get strange, even creepy. Our bodies are made up mostly of oxygen (65% by mass), carbon (18.5%), and hydrogen (9.5%). Hydrogen is the simplest element, and is well studied, so let’s use it as an example. What are the relative distances between the nucleus and the electrons in the hydrogen atom? What are the relative distances between atoms in our bodies? How much ‘empty space’ is inside us?
Since there is no well-defined edge to the electron cloud, it is difficult to determine the exact size of an atom. But we can say that a hydrogen atom is about 100 picometres (pm) in diameter.1 That’s 100 trillionths of a metre. In scientific notation, 1 × 10⁻¹⁰ m. Atoms are tiny!
The hydrogen nucleus is much smaller than the electron cloud, about 2.4 femtometres. That’s 0.0000000000000024 metres. In scientific notation, 2.4 × 10⁻¹⁵ metres. Electrons do not ‘orbit’ the nucleus like many people think, so we can’t really say how ‘far away’ the electrons are from the nucleus, but in the hydrogen atom the average distance to the electrons is about 60,300 times the diameter of the nucleus.
Molecules are held together by covalent bonds in which they share electrons. Thus, atom-to-atom distances are in the range of the size of individual atoms. The distance between two hydrogen atoms in the H₂ molecule is about 74 pm.2 The distance between hydrogen and carbon (one of the most common bonds in the human body) is about 109 pm.3
So, the space between the nucleus and the electron cloud is quite large, compared to the diameter of the nucleus. It helps to have something to compare to. If you were to make the nucleus as large as the sun, the average distance to the electrons would be 14 times as far away as Pluto! In a molecule, nuclei would be about 100 billion miles apart. But even at this scale the electrons would still have essentially no ‘size’. That means the inside of the atom, and the inside of any molecule, is almost completely empty.
Fun fact: our bodies are more than 99.99999999% empty space!
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14b
But if we are made up of empty space, how can the human body (or any other physical object) be ‘seen’ or ‘felt’? When we see something, what we are detecting is the light (an electromagnetic wave) reflecting from the surface of the object. Some electromagnetic waves (e.g. X-rays) pass right through most objects. This is because their wavelengths are shorter than the spacing between the nuclei, so they can almost literally squeeze between atoms. Another type of electromagnetic waves, infrared, is usually absorbed. This is because they are very long waves with low energy, and they get absorbed by molecules, causing their atoms to wiggle (that is, heat up). In between those two extremes is the ‘visible’ part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light tends to bounce off most objects. Even though the atoms are very tiny, very far apart, and made up mostly of empty space, the electron clouds create a continuous ‘surface’. What you see is the light waves that are reflected from the surface. A molecule like chlorophyll strongly absorbs blue and red light. This is why plant leaves are green, because that is what is ‘left’ to reflect. A substance like tar absorbs most wavelengths of light, making it black. A piece of paper absorbs few, making it white.
OK, but how do we ‘feel’ things? When you press your hand against an object, the tightly-bonded atoms in your hand are moved close to the tightly-bonded atoms in the object. Your hand cannot penetrate the surface of a brick wall, no matter how hard you try. This is because the molecules are held rigidly in place by the shared electron clouds within the molecules. What you are feeling is not ‘brick’ so much as an electromagnetic force field generated by the atoms in the wall. There is really not much of anything there. The physical world, including your precious body and brain, is little more than an empty vapour.
O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! … Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Psalm 39:4–6
The Good News
Even though the science of reality is humbling, and even though our bodies may be nothing more than dust, this does not mean we are unimportant in God’s eyes.
Consider what the Old Testament says about man:
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet. Psalm 8:5–6
Or think about what the New Testament says about us:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Ephesians 1:7–10
Mankind has a very special place in God’s creation. In one sense, He built this world, this universe, to bring about a bride for Christ. Next to Him, we are nothing. Yet, for reasons known to Him alone, we were brought into existence to work out His divine plan. Are we empty? Yes. Compared to God are we worth anything? No. But in God’s eyes we are very, very valuable nonetheless. In the eyes of the Creator, we are precious. Holding both of these thoughts simultaneously helps us to keep everything in perspective.