Taming the Atom

The atomistic view of the world—the hypothesis that all matter consists of tiny particles in ceaseless motion—dates back two and a half millennia to the Greek philosopher Democritus. That basic mental image remained essentially unchanged until the early years of this century, when the quantum theory of matter was created in order to explain the puzzling, illogical behavior of matter at a subatomic level. Quantum theory accounts for otherwise unaccountable subatomic phenomena by stating that matter exhibits both the properties of a particle and the properties of a wave. Although it is counter intuitive, accepting this premise allows physicists to construct mathematical equations which do indeed accurately describe and predict subatomic phenomena.

Until recently conventional physics and quantum theory could coexist because each was applied in a different sphere. One hypothesis adequately described everything above the level of the atom; the other adequately described the subatomic realm below. As von Baeyer writes, “Our perceptions of the atom—the miniature grain of sand and the quantum mechanical phantom—exist without a shadow of a doubt. The first we see and the second we know, and the gulf between them is profound.”

Although the gulf is profound, it has narrowed to the merest crack. As scientists’ tools penetrate the perimeter of the atom, what has been hypothetical and mathematical is about to become directly perceptible. The two hypotheses must converge and be reconciled, or one or the other must be discarded. If, as von Baeyer suggests, quantum mechanics emerges as the single picture of the world, then a profound revolution is at hand. “The way humans perceive physical reality would differ from today’s perception as profoundly as today’s materialistic perspective differs from the medieval spiritual one. . . . The circumstances are propitious for the third millennium to begin, like the twentieth century, with a wonderful new insight into nature’s grand scheme.”