Friday, October 17, 2008

Reality at the atomic level

Reviewing my Protein Structure course notes, I came again across the slide in which the professor writes "Reality is quantum, but classical approximations are convenient"

He made a very convincing case for why, a hundred years past the development of quantum theory, we still think of atoms as "balls on springs" when in reality, they are nothing like that. They are grains of sand held at the appropriate distance from each other, with a fuzzy cloud of mist in between that manages to hold it all together.

The things is, it's really hard to quantify just how fuzzy that cloud is, and so it becomes difficult to know how the system will behave when you want to do something to it. In addition, even our fastest computers just can't seem to manage the calculations beyond the simplest of systems, and so it's not just that we're too dumb to grasp it, the problem really is hard to calculate.

So we use the balls on springs, but we must not forget how we know the world actually works at that level, because certain phenomena just don't work if we only think of things in terms of classical approximations. I'm perfectly happy to leave it to the real chemists and physicists for now, but should I need to explain something I don't understand, I will be sure that the first thing I do is throw the Dalton model out the window, and remember to embrace the world of the fuzzy at the femto scale.

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