Keeping Atoms Going
I am an old man and not a high school student. However,
you have so much good info on your site you might be able to help.
Atoms are perpetual motion machines. They are constantly expending
energy. Without a constant input of energy in some form, an atom would run
down quickly. Therefore, they must be dependent on an outside source for
Where do they get this power and how? If I were able to build an
environment totally devoid of any form of energy, and placed a hydrogen
atom in it, would the atom simply dissolve into neutron, proton and
Atoms are governed by quantum mechanics, so you have to expect them to
behave strangely by Newtonian standards.
Consider the hydrogen atom. This is the simplest atom, consisting of a
proton and an electron. When the electron is captured by the proton, it
will "see" a large (infinite) number of energy levels. If it gives up
enough energy to be captured in a high energy level, it can then lose more
energy by emitting photons as it descends to lower energy level. Finally it
arrives at the lowest energy level. This is one place where quantum
mechanics differs from classical mechanics -- the moon can continuously
reduce the radius of its orbit about the earth until it finally crashes into
When the electron reaches its lowest energy state, it is far from the edge
of the proton -- the radius of its orbit is about 1000 times larger than the
radius of the proton. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) then says
that if the position of the electron is well determined by being in the
lowest orbit, its momentum must be uncertain and so the minimum value of its
momentum must be at least comparable to its uncertainty.
This maintains the electron in that orbit forever without any input of
energy. If any energy is added, it must push the electron into a higher
energy orbit, from which it can again descend to the lowest energy orbit by
emitting photons. Its a little like a bowling ball getting trapped in a
well. When the ball is at the bottom, it does not need any energy to stay
there. It does need energy to get out.
So atoms can last forever without any input of energy just as the bowling
ball can stay at the bottom of the well forever without any input of energy.
Best, Dick Plano, Professor of Physics emeritus, Rutgers University
You are correct that atoms (let us assume a gas) are in constant motion.
(Avoid the word "perpetual" because there are a lot of misconceptions
associated with that term.) The "average" energy of a gaseous atom depends
solely on its temperature, specifically E = 3/2* R* T where R = 1.987 cal
/ mol K and T = the temperature in kelvins (K). For an ideal gas (most
gases are pretty much ideal under ordinary room temperature conditions and
1 atmosphere), the atoms collide with one another (and the walls of the
container the gas is in). These collisions are completely elastic (no
friction or stickiness) so that their energy does not need to be
With regard to the second part of your inquiry, if you place a H atom in
a vacuum, totally devoid of any contact with other atoms etc., it stays just
like it is, a H atom. Much of outer space is filled with isolated H atoms
that stay around for billions of years if they do not encounter other atoms
or light of the appropriate energy. Atoms do not "dissolve" into their
component sub-atomic particles spontaneously, excluding radioactive atoms.
That's just the way they behave.
If a machine does not put out any energy, the machine will never stop. On a
large scale, this is not possible. Friction drains energy form a machine,
converting motion energy to heat energy. Air resistance drains energy,
transferring motion energy from the machine to the air molecules that the
machine must keep pushing out of the way. Also, a machine usually does some
sort of work. This too uses up energy. A machine without any such drains
would never stop moving.
An atom often has no such drains. There is no friction on the electrons
orbiting the nucleus. The electrons do not "rub" against anything. There
is no air resistance. The distance between air molecules is extremely
large, from the point of view of an electron. If an atom does not do
anything, the electron just keeps orbiting. An electron spinning around a
nucleus does not exert energy. No energy ever leaves the atom.
When an atom interacts, then energy can be emitted or absorbed. An extreme
example of energy exertion is the nuclear energy in the sun. If Hydrogen
atoms are hot enough, their electrons are knocked loose. This results in
free protons flying all over. Energy has been lost to the electrons. If
these protons are packed tightly enough and hot enough, they will collide.
Sometimes, they will get close enough to join together. One of the protons
can transfer into a neutron, releasing energy in the form of an
anti-electron in the process. These may the join with two more protons.
You end up with a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons, a Helium nucleus.
Such a nucleus has much less mass than the four original protons. This mass
is lost as energy: E=mc^2. Some of the energy is released as the
anti-electrons. Some is released as light. This released energy is called
radiation. Much of this released energy gives a kick to other protons in
the sun. Some leaves as sunlight. This will continue in the sun until it
runs low on Hydrogen. Afterwards, the star will begin to loose power,
Even atoms use the standard energy relation: Energy In + Energy Lost From
Within = Useful Energy Out + Worthless Energy Out. With atoms, however,
Energy Lost From Within and Worthless Energy Out seldom show up.
Kenneth E. Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
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Update: June 2012