This morning I read this story on Science Daily. By poking and prodding potassium atoms with lasers and electrical fields, physicists at Rice University have created millimeter-sized atoms that resemble the familiar electron-orbiting-proton model created by Niels Bohr in 1913. Bohr’s model likened the relationship of the electron to the proton in a simple hydrogen atom to that of a planet orbiting a star. It’s the most recognizable representation of what atoms look like, and it won Bohr a Nobel Prize.
Still, while Bohr’s model was great for explaining the basics of atomic chemistry to a dumbass layman like me, it wasn’t good for a whole lot else. It turns out that electrons don’t circle atomic nuclei in regular planet-like orbits. Instead, quantum physics tells us that the exact position of an electron can never be definitively known. The scale of the Bohr model was wrong, too; atoms are so tiny that the relative distances between nuclei and electrons can be immense. In order to be to scale for a hydrogen atom, the little marble representing the electron in the Bohr model would have to be placed a few miles away from the aggie that stands for the proton.
None of that really matters in a first-year bio or chem class, but the crack team at Rice didn’t let that stop them. Despite its inaccuracies, the Bohr model had been instrumental in advancing the understanding of how atoms work, and for that reason physics and astronomy professor Barry Dunning was determined to give all of those old mobiles collecting dust in science classrooms throughout the world a fresh coat of polish. With help from colleagues from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Vienna University of Technology, Dunning was able to use lasers and electrical pulses to excite potassium atoms into Bohrs-like configurations.
Single electrons in the potassium atoms were coaxed into regular planet-like orbits around the nuclei. “Our measurements show that the electrons remain localized for several orbits and behave much as classical particles,” Dunning said. A side effect of this process is that it makes the atoms grow fucking huge. Well, relatively. The zapped potassium atoms have diameters of nearly one millimeter. They aren’t visible to the naked eye, since the particles are still far too tiny to see, but nevertheless, that is one gigantic atom.
Does this sound familiar to you? It did to me. That’s because The Onion published a very similar story over a year ago, “Scientists Create World’s Largest Novelty Atom.” The giant atom supposedly manufactured by scientists in that story, Humongolium, is many times smaller than the atoms that result from Dunning’s Bohr-ification process. Could this have been where Dunning got the idea? Is this a case of science imitating satire? I’d be okay with that.