The Story Of Atoms

by Geoffrey Hart

In the beginning was the first scientist — the God Particle, GP hereafter. (Even in the beginning, scientists loved their acronyms, abbreviations, and clever wordplay, and GP was no different. And, of course, GP was ineluctably masculine, since back then, only men could be scientists. There being only one of him, that was less sexist than it might seem to modern sensibilities.)

Darkness was upon the face of the universe (for back then, there was only one), and GP looked upon it and saw that it was good: it had the simplicity of a really good Japanese watercolor, though, of course, such things had yet to be invented. Best of all, it left everything to the imagination, which was a more effective technique than overexplaining and overcomplicating everything. That was to come later, when universities were invented.

After a time — unquantifiable, because time was still a new thing, the paint still drying and GP not quite sure whether quantification was as good an idea as it had seemed at the time — GP began to feel just the slightest bit lonely. After all, what good was a universe if there was no one else to appreciate it? So in a fit of enthusiasm, GP created another being with whom to share the void. Let’s call her “GP Prime”, or “Prime” for short, for there would eventually be mathematics, mathematical tradition, and the notation it spawned. More importantly, of course, any good story needs conflict, and laying claim to first rank, first causes, and first publication was a primary source of conflict then, as it is now.

Prime was very impressed with the universe; there was, after all, nothing else quite like it. But after a time, she noted a certain sameness to it. With no light, there was only structure and symmetry to gaze upon, and though it was an admirable and symmetrical structure, it was a trifle… bland.

“GP, I think something’s missing,” she ventured.

“Why? It’s perfect and, by definition, cannot be improved upon.”

“While I concede, for the sake of argument, that perfection is perfect, I’m not sure it’s sufficient.”

“What would you add?”

“Hmmm… perhaps a little… light?” And there was light, a warm reddish background glow that both illuminated and concealed, and now the structure and symmetry stood out and could be more easily appreciated.

“But… But… It leaves nothing to the imagination!”

“Don’t over-react. It’s only a little light. Be still, and I’ll fix it.” And Prime created shadow, and GP saw that it was good.

“I like that shadow.”

“Thought you might. But why stop there? For example, all that structure is perfectly lovely, but what’s it all in aid of?”

“Well… us, really.”

“Why not try a little of this, instead?” And Prime created atoms, and GP saw that they were good.

“Huh. Never would have thought of that on my own.”

“Of course not. That’s why we have peer review.”

GP was a little miffed, but deeper down, felt something he’d never felt before. Intrigued. Despite his trepidation, he could hardly wait to see what Prime had up her (thus far, entirely metaphysical) sleeve. “What else have you got?”

“How about this?” And where once there were atoms, perfect and indivisible, now there were subatomic particles.

“Neat! Can I name them?”

Prime nodded, secretly pleased.

“Let’s call this big one a proton. And this smaller one an electron.”

Prime pursed her lips. “And just to shake things up, how about this?” And a third particle appeared.

“Ooh! That’s transgressive… it’s… unbalanced! What will you call it?” GP was, after all, perfectly willing to give credit where credit was due. Eventually.

Neutron. And here’s another cool thing:” Prime disappeared the electron.

“Wait: where’d it go?”

“Into the proton — and now it’s a neutron!”

“Put it back. I like having three different particles.”

“Very well.” The electron reappeared. “Hmm… then you’ll love this.” And suddenly there were a great many smaller particles humming with energy and bouncing off each other and vibrating and rotating and translating with their enthusiasm. “I’ll call them quarks, and… and…. This undeniably cute one will be Charm, and this one I haven’t completely figured out yet I’ll call Strange, and…”

Enough! Enough! My head’s spinning.” GP was beginning to regret having given Prime both a mind equal to his own and agency to use it.

“But if I subdivide the quarks into these littler things…”

“STOP! NO FURTHER!” GP regretted having to shout, but it seemed necessary to catch Prime’s attention before she got carried away. More carried away, leastwise. Things were still relatively simple, just the way he liked it, but he had a sense of foreboding.

Prime took a deep breath (now that there was something to breathe) and pondered a moment. “Well, if you don’t want more smaller things, how about larger?” She banged two atoms together, and there was a brilliant flash of light.

“What was that?”

“I call it fusion… bang enough little things together and you get bigger things. Bang a few of those bigger things together, and you get even bigger things. I’m going to call them elements.”

“And what if I were to break them apart again?” And GP did, and there was even more light. “Ouch! That stings.”

“I’m going to call that fission. And if you’re going to break the things I make, then you’d best take care.” There was no doubting it; a note of petulance had crept into Prime’s voice.

GP attempted a placating tone. “Nice. What else can you do?”

“Well first, let’s make the light a little more steady. There.”

“Wow. I’m going to call those stars. Because you’re a star performer.”

Prime managed to conceal her wince; it helped that GP wasn’t really paying attention to her, gaze focused on his universe. “OK, good. Now how about these?” Large clusters of atoms came together and began circling the stars.

“Nice. I’m going to call them planets… because… um… they move.”

“You like moving things? How about these?” More atoms came together and started orbiting the planets.

Nice. I’m going to call them moons. But stop: no further. Let’s enjoy what we’ve created before we needlessly recomplicate.”

Prime sighed. We? Even then, before academic review committees and departmental politics, authorship was an issue. “But why stop there? There’s so much more we could create.”

GP, entirely missing how Prime lingered over the we, tried to reassert his authority. “Because it’s my universe, and I say so.”

“That’s easy enough to solve. Here!” And suddenly, where once there was a single universe, now there was a multiverse. “You play with this one, and I’ll play with that one, and when we’re done, we’ll compare notes and see who’s done the better job of putting things together.”

GP tried to push stars and atoms and planets and moons and other things back together into the simple, elegant simplicity he’d created, but Prime, though younger, was not naïve. She’d known this would happen, and the harder GP tried to put things back the way they’d originally been, the harder her multiverse strove to create more of itself.

“STOP! NO FURTHER!”

Prime chuckled. She hadn’t realized just how much she resented being told what she could and couldn’t create or modify or play with. “Don’t like that, huh? Well try this:” And around one of the older stars, on the surface of a planet with a single moon, more clusters of atoms came together and rose from the earth. Some were happy to stay in place; others were restless as the moons and planets and stars themselves, and moved about.

“STOP! NO FURTHER!”

Prime doubled over in outright laughter as GP grew apoplectic. The new things began making their own new things, some like themselves, some not. I’ll call that evolution, Prime said to herself. See how he likes that.

GP tried, with increasing desperation to put things right; Prime knocked them astray again. And so it went through the aeons. Each time GP put the genie back in the bottle, Prime gleefully tugged loose the cork; when GP vacuum-welded the cork to the bottle, Prime invented wormholes; when GP constrained the wormholes to atomic diameters, Prime created quantum tunneling.

Which brings us to the present, the end (for now) of this story of the early days of atoms, and — if you’ll forgive me — the moral of this tale. The multiverse is an endlessly messy place, and it’s not yet clear whether this is a good thing. But it’s what we’ve got, and we’ve got to make the best of it. Occam’s razor tells us we mustn’t ignore the true complexity, but that we must also not complicate things unnecessarily. If we keep trying, someday we’ll achieve an understanding that’s no more complex than necessary. And perhaps that will satisfy GP and Prime enough that they can shake hands, agree to disagree, and get on with figuring out what it’s all in aid of.

~

Bio:

Geoff Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 60 stories thus far. Visit him online at geoff-hart.com.

Philosophy Note:

The eternal struggle between man and woman seems to be built into the physics of the universe.

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