2100: Models of the Atom

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Models of the Atom
J.J. Thompson won a Nobel Prize for his work in electricity in gases, but was unfairly passed over for his "An atom is plum pudding, and plum pudding is MADE of atoms! Duuuuude." theory.
Title text: J.J. Thompson won a Nobel Prize for his work in electricity in gases, but was unfairly passed over for his "An atom is plum pudding, and plum pudding is MADE of atoms! Duuuuude." theory.


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by a CONFUSED ATOM. Please mention here why this explanation isn't complete. Do NOT delete this tag too soon.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

This comic humorously describes the changing view of how atoms work.

The first model shown, in 1810, is said to be a "small hard ball model." Around this time, John Dalton came up with the most famous maxim of chemistry: "All stuff is made of atoms." Dalton used the idea to explain what is today known as stoichiometry. Thus humans thought up the idea of atoms – but in lieu of any ideas of how they work, the scientific community likely thought of them as "hard round balls"; thus the name described here.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the study of these "atom" things faced a crisis: where would the newly discovered "electrons" go? In 1904, physicist J. J. Thomson, who discovered electrons, had an idea: maybe the electrons were small point charges moving around in a big mass of positive charge. This was the "plum pudding model", the second model on the comic, called this because people imagined the positively charged mass as a "plum pudding". (The title text references Thomson as well, along with the humorous observation that plum puddings themselves are made of atoms.)

This was one of many competing ideas in the formative years of what-are-atoms-made-of-ology, where Randall claims a 1907 "tiny bird model" (the third model shown) would fit in well. But ultimately, the tentative winner in the battle was the model of Thomson's student Ernest Rutherford, who discovered that the positive charge seemed to be in the center of the atom, and put down his Rutherford model, or "planetary model", in 1911, where electrons orbit a positive charge. This is the fourth model put down.

But there were a few problems; Maxwell's equations complained, for instance, saying that accelerated (here: flying on the circle instead of a straight line) charges like the electrons would loose energy emitted as electromagnetic waves and would quickly orbit into the nucleus. Niels Bohr patched the model up with the newfangled idea of quantum mechanics, creating his "Bohr model", the fifth model shown here, in 1913.

If this sounds like today's model, you didn't pay enough attention; note that at this time, nobody thought of splitting up the nucleus into protons and neutrons. But pretty soon people noticed that protons and neutrons existed; Randall facetiously suggests a "nunchuck model", the sixth model shown, of a packet of protons swinging a packet of electrons around. But more seriously, James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron, figured that the atom had a nucleus of neutrons and protons, along with a bunch of electrons orbiting around it in a Bohrish manner. This is what the layman today often thinks of as an atom, and is the the seventh model shown here.

The eighth model shown is a "538 model" in 2008. 538 is a statistical analysis website that gained fame in 2008 for predicting every race but 2 correctly in the US presidential election. It has since been known for making mathematical models for everything; the model jokingly suggests that 538 has modeled and presumably made predictions about the atom. The pie chart shows the statistical composition of neutrons, protons and electrons, 38%, 31%, and 31% respectively. This could either be the average of a massive body with several isotopes or represent gallium-69, the most abundant isotope of gallium, with 31 protons, 31 electrons and 38 neutrons.

But is the Chadwick model what scientists endorse today? No! Today physicists subscribe to a quantum model, which is the ninth model shown here. Instead of electrons, there are quantum clouds, or more simply, the parts of the atom aren't in any particular point, but rather a probability field of possible locations. This is very abstract, and in the last model, the model is postulated to get so abstract that it is just a "small hard ball surrounded by math" model, the last model shown. This then is remarkably similar to the model we started out from, the "small hard ball model" (without the math).

The picture for the "small ball surrounded by math" depicts a circle with several numbers around it. While the numbers seem to symbolize the "surrounding math" in a general sense, some of them suggest constants used in actual mathematical equations or other numbers related to the quantum model.

Number Explanation
18 Maximum number of electrons in the third (M) electron shell
π The number pi present in many physics equations, often as its double value (2π); also in the definition of the reduced Planck constant present in quantum-mechanical equations.
173 Possibly a typo (should be 137) referring to the fine structure constant which value is approximately 1/137


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.

[One large panel with a caption centered on top and ten small drawings in two rows. Each drawing has a description below it.]

Models of the atom over time

[A somewhat imperfectly drawn circle.]

Small hard ball model

[A rounded-corners trapezoid inside which there are four small plus signs and four small circles with minus signs inside them.]

Plum pudding model

[A bigger circle, with four birds on the surface and music notes above.]

Tiny bird model

[A small circle with dots circling around it, drawn with paths.]

Rutherford model

[A circle with a plus sign with three circles around it, each with a dot.]

Bohr model

[A nunchuck swinging, with the left stick filled with circles with plus signs and the right stick filled with circles with minus signs.]

Nunchuck model

[A nucleus with three circles around it, each with a dot.]

Chadwick model

[A pie chart, where a part of it has a circle, a part of it has a circle with a minus sign and a part of it has a circle with a plus sign.]

538 model

[A circle, with (...)]

Quantum model

[A circle with numbers above.]

Numbers: 18, 0.1, π, 173, √2, 4i

"Small hard ball surrounded by math" model

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No mention of the Platonic solid model? DanielLC (talk) 05:56, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

   Not yet. My favorite of those 5 is the double cube, AKA the Octahedron. Haph (talk) 06:35, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
My good sir DanielLC: I presume that Randall neglected to mention it because the first evidence-based atom theory didn't come until 1810 and John Dalton. The atom theories of the ancient Greeks were mostly philosophical posturing, in my opinion.
We seem to be missing the Acorn Atom as well. Kazzie (talk) 10:16, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
And the Ariel Atom These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 08:43, 20 January 2019 (UTC)

According to cosmology lecture notes by the astronomer Neil Trentham, mass in the universe ist 75% H (mostly 1p+0n=1) and 25% He (mostly 2p+2n=4). As He is 4 times as heavy and 3 times as seldom, there is 12 times more H than He => The ratio n/p is 1/7. We can assume that in the 538 model the statistics was done on atoms comprising few Hydrogene, e.g. only the earth's mantle. In heavier elements the ratio n/p > 1. Sebastian -- 07:39, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

What are the numbers? Is 173 an error for 137, the fine structure constant? Sabik (talk) 10:36, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

It reminds me of the mass of the top quark (even though the current best value is 172.44 GeV, 173, as measured at the time at Tevatron, was used as a good approximation for a long time. The latest Particle Data Group review also gives something rounding to 173) 13:55, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
Do they really need a table for explanation? wouldn't a simple list be much easier to read? in my POV (which AFAIK is shared by many here) a table with just 2 columns is not useful at all --Lupo (talk) 14:17, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
I strongly disagree: When any column except the last contains phrases of differing lengths, using a table (instead of a list presented in proportional width unformatted text) greatly increases legibility. Lists are fine for conveying a series of single items, but tables are superior for matrices with two dimensions or more.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 20:23, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
I also think that the table looks slightly out of place. At the very least it needs some additional text to link it to the explanation above, as it is not immediately obvious where the numbers come from without referring back to the comic. AlChemist (talk) 11:20, 19 January 2019 (UTC)
173 could also be referencing the fact that Z=173 is theoretically the point where the 1s orbital goes all weird. The Wikipedia article gives a good explanation. 05:46, 19 January 2019 (UTC)

The tiny bird model puzzles me completely. Is it a reference to any interim (even if obscure) scientific model or is it a completely facetious Randall's invention? Or is it a reference to something unrelated? Any ideas? -- 12:55, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

When cartoon characters are dizzy, they are often depicted with stars or birds circling their head. Since xkcd is a comic & thus shares the hand-drawn aesthetic, I presume that Randall is referencing the "Circling Birds" trope.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 20:23, 18 January 2019 (UTC)
This seems to me a joke about how the early models of the atom were incredibly uninformed regarding science that we take for granted nowadays. It's just surprising and humorous. I googled it! I so wanted it to be real! 01:47, 19 January 2019 (UTC)

The absolute scale of physical constants seldom has specific meaning. See h vs ħ (h bar). Neither is right or wrong and they can be used interchangeably (when putting the 2*pi in or removing it at the same time). The same is true for dimensionless constants. E.g. 4*pi *(h bar) = 2 *(h). So the 4*pi as dimensionless constant is as correct as 2 or any other dimensionless number, as you can rescale other constants. If you redefine some natural constants, the value 137 also changes. Most dimensionless constants can be deduced from mathematics with a known or yet unknown underlying physical theory. For example all chemical properties of elements (=chemical constants) can be calculated from the underlying physics by very complex mathematical terms. For an excursion that also mathematical constants are open for debate, see the Pi vs Tau debate. Both are correct. Sebastian -- 15:16, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

Any chance the 4i is a Four-eye Joke? Seems a little low brow amongst all the numbers with meaning, but maybe? Also, the square root of 2 goes back a long way in mathematical theory like the first proof that not all numbers are rational. Pevinsghost (talk) 15:30, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

Of course, in the more distant "future", we know that subatomic particles are actually science fiction tropes suspended in an amorphic field of negatively biased reviews, known as the "universally unsatisfactory" model. Nobody's entirely happy about the implications that the fundamental laws governing the nature of our reality were written largely by unpaid interns & compiled by a committee, but almost everyone agrees that it's the only explanation which matches our observational data. ProphetZarquon (talk) 20:23, 18 January 2019 (UTC)

Will merkle trees help us find reality or are they a false flag? 01:44, 19 January 2019 (UTC)

Underline error, also Tiny Bird Model

I just wanted to point out that Randall forgot to underline 1913 above the Bohr model - I'm assuming it's a mistake and has no significance to the meaning of the comic, but.

Also, regarding the tiny bird model, I think it's largely a combination of the idea that scientists really had no clue what was going on inside the atom, combined with finding tiny birds humorous. The nunchuck model does have a feasible explanation, as proposed in the article itself, but it's really no more sensible than the tiny bird model. I doubt there was any further intended meaning to it.

Avesmx (talk) 21:03, 18 February 2019 (UTC)