Stories, Not Atoms

If you are ever walking down East 41st Street in Manhattan between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, you might look down and see this inscription embedded in a bronze plaque on the sidewalk: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The inscription is taken from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser called “The Speed of Darkness.” The plaque is one of a series of sayings by noted artists implanted in the sidewalk on both sides of the street near the New York Public Library and known as Library Walk. This being New York, you might be in such a rush that you do not bother to look down at all. Or if you do, you may not absorb what Rukeyser is trying to tell you as you go about your business. But her thought is well worth pondering.

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. This might strike you at first as the battle cry of English majors everywhere who feel beleaguered by the apostles of hard science. But the distinction between stories and atoms is not as cut-and-dried as it might appear. Atoms are usually presented as fact, not fancy. But many stories are also fact, and, as it turns out, atoms have elements that can only be described as fanciful. Scientists like to think they only deal in facts, but when they talk about atoms, they are really just telling a different kind of story.

Atoms, as originally conceived, were both invisible and indivisible. The Greek philosopher Democritus is credited with the naming them in the fifth century BCE, but the idea seems to have originated in India a century or so earlier. Democritus reasoned that if you broke a piece of matter in half and kept breaking it into smaller and smaller halves, you would eventually wind up with a fragment that could not be broken into smaller pieces, leaving you with an atom. Democritus based his assertions on logic rather than on experimentation or empirical observation. More than 2,200 years would elapse before anyone took the idea any further.

The image of the atom that is most familiar to us, with electrons circling a nucleus like planets orbiting the sun, was first conceived by Ernest Rutherford and subsequently modified by Niels Bohr. Bohr won a Nobel Prize for his work on the structure of the atom, although the model he proposed turns out to be a fiction. As quantum physicists will happily tell you, those orbiting electrons are everywhere and nowhere, if not in two places at once. There is nothing about the structure of the atom that can be pictured or adequately described in words, although you can do the math.

Is it possible to tell a story that can only be expressed mathematically? Perhaps not the kind of yarn you spin around a campfire. But if you are talking about a narrative that gives meaning and coherence to one’s experience of the world, numbers have been doing the job since the ancient Greeks discovered that arithmetic and geometric principles governed the natural order.

The physicist Paul Davies argues that the basic storyline of modern science is borrowed from the Greeks and from the Judeo-Christian view that God created the universe at a specific historical moment according to fixed laws. In contrast to the cyclical view of time in virtually all ancient cultures, Jews – and later Christians and Muslims – maintained that the physical world has a beginning, middle and end, the full narrative arc. Scientists today might recoil from the notion that physical laws are derived from a theological understanding of the world. However, the founders of modern science, starting with Isaac Newton, were explicitly of this opinion. Even Albert Einstein, who did not hold conventional religious views, said, "I want to know God's thoughts,” by which he meant the laws of nature.

It was Einstein who said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. This, of course, is what we mean when we say the universe is made of stories and why even atoms tell a story. The ancients looked at the tiny points of light tracing slow paths through the night sky and thought they saw the movement of the gods. Later they determined these points of light were stars and planets whose trajectories could be plotted with mathematical precision. What we see with the naked eye in the night sky is no different than what our ancestors saw; only the stories have changed – and they will no doubt change again as our understanding of the cosmos evolves.

Once you understand that atoms tell their own kind of story, it is okay to say the universe is made of atoms, just as long as you remember the picture of the atom you learned in school is more fiction than fact. Hydrogen and helium are the most common elements by far. All the heavier elements – barely two percent of the total mass of the universe -- were cooked up in the nuclear furnaces of stars. Without those heavier elements, especially carbon and oxygen, there would be no organic compounds, which is what we are made of, the stuff of exploded stars. And, of course, without us there would be no one to weave everything together into a coherent narrative. For the time being at least, that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.

© Copyright 2004-2012 by Eric Rennie
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