At the beginning of the 20th century, physicists still doubted the existence of atoms because these could not be observed in the laboratory. Electrons were first discovered 1897 by the British physicist Joseph John Thomson when he was experimenting cathode rays in his laboratory. Protons were discovered in 1911 also by Thomson. The name “proton” was suggested by Ernest Rutherford, a former student of Thomson. It was only in 1920 that “neutrons” were discovered by Rutherford.

With today’s powerful atom-smashing particle accelerators, atoms are known to consist of a negatively charged electrons and a positively charged proton and a neutral neutron. The proton and the neutron form the nucleus. This categorization is not unique to science. The Hindu theory of creation suggests that at the beginning there was only energy and matter. The mixing of these two primal elements in different proportions results in the creation of three basic building blocks of our universe. These are the: Sattva having great amount of energy and little matter (interpreted as electron); Tamas having less energy and big matter (considered as proton); and Rajas being in between, also interpreted as neutron (

Physicists tell us that matter can manifest itself in three different states, namely, solid, gas, and air. From these substances, the basic elements of nature—air, fire, earth, water—were produced. All these are simply varying combinations of atomic and chemical substances that are present in the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.

For example, the air in our atmosphere is composed of different gases, i.e., nitrogen, oxygen, and argon. Fire is a combination of heat and oxygen, while the Earth’s crust is made up of oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Of course, we know the chemical combination of water, which is hydrogen and oxygen (

Atoms are so tiny that they are not directly visible to our naked eyes. They are almost inconceivable that even their presence is sometimes doubted. Luckily, with our current technology, they can be detected by the blinkering lights they emit, in the form of “now-you-see and now-you-don’t” pattern.

But, in spite of this, estimates of their sizes, weights, and lifespan have been made. The atom has been approximated to be less than two billionths of an inch in diameter. Yet, it is considered huge compared to the nucleus and the electron. The nucleus is about 100,000 times smaller than the whole atom, while the neutron is about 1,839 times larger than the electron and 12 times smaller than a proton. 

So tiny are atoms that in the quantum world, particles, scientists say, are no longer considered as objects as we ordinarily understand the term today. Objects have their innate nature of being solid, but this is an illusion. If we tap a table for example, we feel it hard but at its fundamental level are tiny electrons and protons. The table is merely the dense form and concrete manifestation of the atomic particles.

Yet, we are told that the world of an atom is 99 percent space, leaving only one percent for its populace. Mathematicians estimate that if we can picture a hydrogen atom whose nucleus is as big as a basketball, the lone electron would be two miles away. In between the two particles is empty.

Atoms and their subatomic particles are not only tiny. They are also very elusive, endlessly moving from one region of space and time to another. Due to the short distance allowed by their confinement, electrons move with estimated velocities of 600 miles per second. But this is almost nothing compared with the velocities of the elements inside the nucleus, which are estimated to travel at about 40,000 miles per second.

Atomic particles just appear as if out of nowhere and, as suddenly as they appear, they also vanish into nowhere. Physicists are always on their edge, always alert whenever these particles arrive and go so that they can at least have some nanoseconds to observe and measure them.

Yet, once the opportunity to investigate subatomic particles arrives, scientists can only estimate their location within a possible area but, at the same time, they also say that they may not be within this range anymore because the moment it is located within a probable range, it could be already somewhere else.

One is again reminded of the Chinese sage Lao Tsu who spoke thousands of years ago about the subtlety of nature. In his words:

One of deep virtue cherishes the subtle essence of the universe. The subtle essence of the universe is elusive and evasive, it unveils itself as images and forms. Evasive and elusive, it discloses itself as indefinable substance. Shadowy and indistinct, it reveals itself as impalpable subtle essence. This essence is so subtle, and yet so real.

Because of their intangibility, measuring their sizes, masses, and weights is a constant challenge of particle physicists. But this elusiveness only triggers an intense curiosity that physicists have been able to come up with models portraying their paths and behavior. These models still have their limitations but they now serve us as guides for viewing and interacting with reality.

So, how does the world of atom really look like and behave?