(Sunday Gazette-Mail science page, June 20, 1999)

Everything is a miracle

By James A. Haught

Ever since high school (long, long ago) I've been enchanted by a sense that science reveals the hidden codes governing reality.

When I learned that gaps in the outer shell of electrons cause atoms to bind into molecules, obeying fixed combining rules, it seemed to explain all the substances of our world.

When I learned that gravity pulls planets into orbits, and stars into galaxies, it gave me an eerie awareness of an invisible power shaping the universe.

Since the 1950s, I've read physics books avidly. When my four kids were young, I made drawings to show them what causes summer and winter, what causes the daytime sky to be blue, what causes electricity to flow in wires, what causes viruses to spread through cells, what causes airplanes to rise in the air, etc. My sketch-explanations were published as a children's book.

But in spite of this constant quest for comprehension, I always come to a spooky feeling that everything is some kind of miracle. I don't believe in the supernatural - yet the truths of science disclose mind-boggling enigmas more mysterious than any magic claim. Consider some examples:

Matter seems real to us, but it's mostly an electrical illusion. The solidness of things stems from the negative electron clouds of atoms repelling each other. If you approached an atom, you couldn't find it. Beneath the blur of electrons, the nucleus would be too distant to see. Proportionally, the particles in an atom are as far apart as the sun and planets in our solar system. Looking into an atom would be like looking into the night sky.

Presumably, if you reached the nucleus, it also would be 99.999 percent void - mostly empty space between the quarks that form the nuclear particles.

Furthermore, nobody really knows what electrons and quarks are. They behave like waves. They behave like charged objects. Their true essence remains a mystery. One physicist calls them "the dreams of which stuff is made."

However, even though matter is illusory, it's extremely real in our daily lives. Atoms in steel may be as empty as the night sky, but a steel knife can cut you.

Consider a bass string on a piano: a long wire coiled into a tight spring. It's so rigid that it will hold its stretch for many years, vibrating at the prescribed pitch. Yet the atoms of that wire are clouds not touching each other, merely attracted by the valence gaps in their electron shells. How can untouching clouds make hard metal that no person can pull apart?

The awesome emptiness inside atoms can be grasped when you ponder three objects which "squeeze out" that emptiness: white dwarfs, pulsars and black holes.

In a white dwarf star, gravity compresses the plasma of shattered atoms to an incredible density, until resistance by electrons halts the compression. The star substance is 10,000 times denser than steel, and weighs 10 tons per thimbleful - unlike anything known on planet Earth.

A pulsar (neutron star) is more extreme. It occurs when a bigger mass makes stronger gravity, which overwhelms the resistance to compression and forces electrons to merge with protons, creating a solid mass of neutrons. It weighs 10 million tons per thimbleful - beyond human comprehension.

And a black hole is the ultimate gravitational collapse, squeezing matter much, much denser. If planet Earth were compressed to its Schwarzchild radius, at which a black hole begins, it would be the size of a pearl.

Can anyone grasp such a thing? See why I say that science brings astonishment? Here are some other enigmas:

-- Although electrons peacefully occupy every atom of your body, they're violent when detached. Lightning bolts are cascades of electrons.

-- Electrons have a quality called "spin" (but it doesn't mean whirling) - and it can be used to suspend railway trains in the air. In most atoms, electrons are in pairs with opposite spin, neutralizing them. But in iron-type atoms, some electrons aren't paired, and the unbalanced spin makes each atom a magnet. When an electrical current causes all the atoms to line up in the same direction, the result can be an electromagnet strong enough to make "maglev" (magnetic levitation) trains float above rails.

-- Last month, a new astronomy study established that the Milky Way galaxy is rotating at such a rate that our solar system is moving 135 miles per second. This means that we West Virginians are traveling about 800 miles an hour with the rotation of the planet, 67,000 mph in the orbit around the sun, and 486,000 mph in our trip around the galaxy - yet we have no awareness of moving. (In comparison, a bullet goes 3,000 miles an hour.)

-- Also last month, a NASA study pegged the age of the universe at 12 billion years. When we look at some stars, we're seeing light that left them hundreds or thousands of years ago. They've moved - and perhaps exploded - since then. Our eyes see the past.

-- Relativity says that time slows and dimensions shorten as speed increases. This seems impossible, but many tests have verified it.

-- Einstein's great equation, E=MC2, showed the colossal power that's released when matter turns into energy. An amount of matter smaller than a dime changed into energy at Hiroshima in 1945.

-- Each human cell (except red blood cells) contains about six feet of DNA, and you have many trillions of cells, so your body contains several billion miles of DNA.

And so on.

Now, do you agree that the reality revealed by science is astounding? As I said, everything is a miracle.