## Shape of things to come depends on atoms

I have decided to get in shape. And the shape I have chosen is a triangle.

On second thought, all those sines and cosines would probably confuse me. I have enough trouble following street signs. But the shape of things, including signs and sines, have always interested me.

Why do things even have shapes? I mean a chair has a shape suited to sitting in. But why do things such as rocks, trees, rivers, and crickets have the shape they have? And who gets to decide what shape they will be? No one ever asked me. As you can see, I also have problems with tangents.

But to have a shape, something must be a solid. It’s hard to have a shape if you can’t hold it, and only solids can hold their shape.

Solids are a result of the interface between order and disorder, and the arrangements of elemental particles called atoms.

Atoms always strike me as odd things. I think of them as particles, but I am told they are mostly empty space, with a few smaller particles like electrons and protons floating around. But these packages of mostly space can be packaged together in different ways to make what we call the three states of matter.

The nature of what physical state we perceive is less about which specific atoms are involved, although that is often important, and more about how close together these packets of space are packaged.

Atoms, which are mostly empty space, when packed close together become the thing we call a solid. And solid things have shapes.

Someone has said that “solids are those parts of the physical world which support when sat on, which hurt when kicked, and kill when shot.” So if I understand this correctly, if we pack something that is mostly empty space closely enough together we get a solid.

But, of course, the space in atoms isn’t really empty, it is just empty of material. But what else is there?

Well, I am told that the space in atoms is filled with things such as electronic fields.

Fields are empty space so you see the space inside atoms is filled with fields. Is this getting more clear?

But electronic fields actually can fill space, in the same way that a magnetic field can fill space. If one takes two magnets and brings like poles together, you will feel a resistance filling the space between the two magnets. Depending on how strong the magnets are, and how strong you are, it may be very difficult, or impossible, to push the two together. The space between the two magnets seems to be full of something.

So it doesn’t really matter which atoms we are talking about, just how close together they are, for us to experience solidarity. A solid is a substance in which atoms and their accompanying fields are packed together very closely.

If the atoms are not closely packed, they can slide around across each other, much like two magnets with like poles seem to slide around each other, instead of ever actually touching.

Such a substance can’t hold a shape and is called a liquid. So, much of what we experience in the physical world, the shape of things, depends simply on how close together the atoms are packaged. Solids are closely packed empty spaces, liquids are less closely packed empty spaces, and gases are empty spaces packed into a larger empty space, loosely. Seems perfectly clear to me.

Of course, once atoms are brought into close proximity to one another, they have to fit together according to their shape, like a pattern on wallpaper.

That is where it becomes important which shape of atom is involved. Some fit together in hexagons, some as cubes, and some even as triangles. That’s my kind of shape.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and owner/operator of Flaming Moth Productions.

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