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Creation 40(3):24–25, April 2018

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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.

Comparing the sun and Pluto to the nucleus and electron. At these scales, it would be impossible to even see these things, so each is represented by a tiny point. For example, even though the radius of the sun is approximately 700,000 km, that is less than 1/8000th the distance between the sun and Pluto. In the same way, the distance between the nucleus and electrons is truly vast, compared to the size of the nucleus.

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.

References and notes

  1. See quora.com/What-is-the-diameter-of-a-hydrogen-atom. Return to text.
  2. See quora.com/What-is-the-average-distance-of-a-single-electron-in-the-first-orbital-of-a-hydrogen-atom-relative-to-the-size-of-the-nucleus. Return to text.
  3. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon–hydrogen_bond. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Gary S.
If electrons don’t orbit the nucleus are they fixed?
Robert Carter
No. Look up any standard textbook, or even a YouTube video, to see why. Electrons have no fixed position or orbit. Instead, we talk about 'probability clouds' and the like.
David B.
This is a well written article. With the verses interspersed, it just adds to the 'flavor'

I will give you one more that should add to the context:

Ecclesiastes 1

14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

When God says we are but a vapor it is more than just our time on Earth
Mark E.
Another interesting thought to ponder is that Jesus 'passed through' the walls or locked door of the upper room. Somehow, the relative 'emptiness' of His physical form was able to pass through the relative emptiness of the physical walls and door, perfectly retaining His recognisable physical attributes, i.e., the disciples recognised it was Him. Angels like Michael and Gabriel are able to materialise onto the earth to be visible in our relatively empty existence. What energy source must have been employed in order to transition one physical form through another without distortion or apparent pain and discomfort? Perhaps, only the Creator of the universe and spiritual beings have this power and capability.
Robert Carter
Excellent point. This brings up the question: If Jesus was able to pass through a wall, is that because he was made of a ghost-like substance, or are we ghost-like and He is more solid? Of course, the Bible does not directly say Jesus walked through the wall of the room but that he simple "appeared" among them, so we do have to exercise a little caution here. See John 20:19 and John 20:26.
Linda E.
Love the article. Now you're in my field. But I have a question. You say, "What you are feeling is not ‘brick’ so much as an electromagnetic force field generated by the atoms in the wall." Why do objects feel different to us? In other words, why would the electromagnetic force field of a brick feel different to us than the electromagnetic force field of a donut? If the answer is related to density, then think of an object with the same density, but different texture as a brick.
Robert Carter
Great question. The ability of the material to absorb heat is one of the main things that we sense. Roughness is another. The ability to flex or bend under pressure is a third. So even if a brick and a donut might have a similar roughness, a brick absorbs or releases heat more readily than a donut and it does not flex like a donut. If you were to heft the two objects in your hand you would also notice a great difference in density. All such senses combine into our perception of touch, but the atoms in our hands never contact the atoms in the object we hold. Sometimes the electrons in the object are absorbed by our skin, or visa versa, but this generally causes chemical burns and the like (think about what would happen if when you stuck your hand in bleach or a strong acid).
Philip U.
...and what is 'space'?
Geoff C. W.
It seems I dropped an electromagnetic force field on my foot the other day, rather than a brick ... but it still hurt!
Douglas L.
Ok, I'm nitpicking here so shoot me! :) But the writer of Hebrews (2:6-9) shows that the quote from Psalm 8:5-6 is explicitly talking about Jesus, not about mortal men. Yes, the Psalmist does start off by asking why God is interested in mankind but the rest of the quote is about the Lord as the Son of Man. Other than that, I can't find a single other nit to pick so I guess I'm saying it was a great article! Now let me go get my Kevlar vest.
John J.
So, to look at the wider 'picture', using the same presented above facts, the whole universe is basically very nearly 'empty'! That is an awesome thought.
Robert Carter
John, your comments made me think, and then I had to do some math.

There are about 10^80 particles in the visible universe. Most of those are hydrogen atoms. The diameter of a hydrogen nucleus is 10^-15 m. If you crunched the entire universe down into a single sphere of 10^80 hydrogen nuclei, ignoring the black hole that would commence, and assuming that you can get a maximum density of 74% when filling a sphere with smaller spheres, you would end up with the entire universe packed into a sphere with a radius of only 256 million km -- just outside the orbital radius of Mars!

Doing the same calculation but using hydrogen atoms instead of nuclei, the universe could be packed into a sphere 30.8 x 10^6 km, or about six times the orbital radius of Pluto.

I could have made a mistake and might be off by a power of 10, but the point still holds: The universe is almost completely empty.
It is certainly not a perfect size comparison, but I always used the example of the Hydrogen atom as: if the neutron was the size of a walnut laying in the middle of the field of a football stadium, the electron would be the size of a grain of sand running around in the stadium's seats, and the next closes atom would be nine football stadiums away. Yes we are made of practically nothing, and my God loves me anyway.
Graham P.
Robert Carter: legend.
Kevin R P.
Hebrews 4:12 and John 4:24.

As you know, when God made Adam and Eve he did not make something more substantial and more complex than himself. Spirit, I assume, is more complex than flesh.

We do not stop thinking after we die. The brain is an instrument of the soul and spirit and only necessary (along with eyes and ears) when functioning in this environment. Sound/sight may need different equipment to interact with in a different environment, as in Luke 16 (they have touch, taste, water, fire). Clothed upon not unclothed.

Thanks for the magnification
Norman P.
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report.Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." (Hebrews 11:1-3) "And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit." (1 Cor 15:45) "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." (1 Cor15:51-53) To God be the glory!
Gina T.
Fascinating article. Thank you! I can only praise God for the marvellous way that He has put us together. The huge gap between the nucleus and the electrons defies comprehension! One question that came to my mind is - how can we be sure that there is actually 'nothing' between the nucleus and the electrons? Maybe there is something there that we haven't found yet, or don't understand yet? (Kindly excuse my ignorance if this is a silly question!)
Robert Carter
Gina, when it comes to subatomics, there is much we are uncertain about. However, after smashing many, many atoms, we do have a pretty good idea that there is nothing else other than electrons, protons and neutrons (plus all the things they are made of). If something else was there, it would have mass or at least give off a measurable energy signature. And, with the discovery of the Higgs boson several years ago, all the parts of the (theoretical) atom are accounted for.

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