Physics: The First Science

By Peter Lindenfeld; Suzanne White Brahmia | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

Atoms to Stars: Scales of Size,
Energy, and Force

The microbe and the elephant: the hierarchy of size

Energy and stability

The four forces

Atoms and the periodic table of elements

Seeing atoms: the scanning tunneling microscope

As we look around us we see a world that is marvelously ordered and organized.
Outward from the earth we see the moon, the planets, and the stars. Light comes
to us from them, and other kinds of radiation, signals that tell us how they look,
how big they are, and what they are made of.

We can also go in the other direction, down to smaller and smaller sizes, until
we come to pieces that are too small to see directly. They too can be studied by
the radiation that they give off, or through microscopes, or, more indirectly, by
bouncing other particles off them. As we continue, we get to the atoms that were
once thought to be the smallest, the ultimate building blocks. Today we know that
atoms have their own structure, each with an even tinier nucleus in the center,
with electrons racing around it.

How is the world organized, what can we know and understand about its
order? What is it made of, how are its pieces held together, on the earth, out to
the stars, and down to the tiniest pieces that we know? How do we find out and
how do we learn more? These are some of the questions that we will explore.

The sun, the planets, the atoms, and the nuclei are very different, most
obviously in their size. That allows us to study them quite separately, almost
as if each existed alone. But no part of the universe is alone. Each is acted on
by forces, as its neighbors push and pull. In spite of the enormous variety that
we observe, it seems that there are just four kinds of fundamental forces. They
are the gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, and two kinds of nuclear
forces. Each reigns supreme in its own realm. Together they cooperate to create
the world that we know, from nuclei to stars, with our own, the human scale,
right in the middle.

-1-

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