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On the Metaphysical Structure of the Atom

by Manly P. Hall

The atom, when you study it, according to what little we know about it, which really we know very little about in spite of the fact that we have this strange power under certain conditions to release its incredible and unbelievable energy—about the atom itself we know very little. We are functioning from formula. We are functioning from reasonable explanation of the unknown. We are functioning from opinion about that which in fact and substance is still almost completely illusive. Obviously we are on the track; we are approaching the knowledge of this subject. We have gone far enough to be able to release certain of its potentials. We know in theory, at least, that the atom is a mystery as incredible as the cosmos. We know that the atom is not just a little particle dancing in space. We are beginning to realize what Socrates meant, for Socrates was one of the first to think about atoms. We begin to realize that the atom is an organism as complex as nature itself, and the only reason it appears simple to us is because it is so small that even our abstract mind is incapable of estimating its parts. We do not really know how it came into existence. We do not really know how it mingles with other elements and other atoms. We have formulas to explain this. We do not understand any more that first motion by which the atom came than we understand the first motion by which the world came. We know the universe is a magnificent atom, and we know that the atom is a minute universe, and we cannot but wonder whether our universe, our great universe, is an atom in the fabric of something else. We cannot even estimate what is great or what is small; we do not know where qualitative and quantitative greatness divides. We suddenly do know that something that is so small that we cannot see it may devastate our world; we know that. So we cannot say that an atom is small because through it comes an energy greater than anything we know, yet it appears inconspicuous to say the least.

We know also that your chemical atoms are worlds, that these worlds have their own suns in the middle, and in a funny way the atom is most clearly symbolized by the solar system. In fact, the smallest part, the electron, is moving about the central protons of the atom which are already scientifically referred to as planets. Imagine a solar system so tiny that no human being has ever seen it, actually. Imagine, also, what it means to be a planet in such a solar system. What life grows on that planet? To us it is merely a little unit of negative electronic energy, but what is it really? We do not know. We do not understand it except that we have a vision in our consciousness of this central mass, this positive electrical charge, a mass itself made up of masses. We know that this central mass is something like a nebula in the sky. We see a little grey puff somewhere in space, far beyond our equipment to see, and if we measure it in terms of our understanding of proportions, we would say that litte puff looks about one-eighth an inch across. But that little puff is made up of a kind of cosmic smoke, and that cosmic smoke is made up of particles that may be larger than our universe, and yet to us it is a mist in space. We have no concept, no ability to estimate it, because it is utterly beyond anything we know. And as we look out into the sky at night, or sit in the planetarium and see man-made heavens move before our eyes, we wonder what it is and why it is, we wonder at the immense space, and we get all excited over whether this continual space is curved or straight, or has little wobbles in it, but what it is or why it is we do not know. One thing we do know, with a little more luck, with a little more scientific knowledge, we may be able to bounce a few rays off the Moon, or maybe off Mercury, someday, and get a Nobel prize for it, but we certainly do not know what it is all about.

We know we are living in a magnificent atom. We know that each one of our personalities is a magnificent atom, and we know this tiny little thing which we are using so foolishly is also a magnificent mystery, a point in eternity moving in a field of space, and out of this realization we know that the central part of that atom is composed of what is known as the proton. These protons are little units of electrical charge so tiny we cannot even see them. They do not seem to have anything except a pathetic little intangible radiance behind them. If you put millions and millions and millions of them together they would not make a spark. They certainly would not sustain a body such as ours or a world in space. They are just little, tiny, infinitesimal sparks, trying to get along with space, themselves, and each other.

Then this central nucleus also contains something else. We know in some mysterious way that these electrons that dance around this central nucleus have kind of worked their way into it, so that the central part of this atom contains some of the electronic units of negative charge, that are also to be found in the external part of the atom. So the central part of the atom contains some of the outside unit of the negative charge as well as the inside. And then on the outside of this are the orbits. The orbits are composed of electronic planets, and these orbits moving, some with twenty, some with fifty and some with eighty electrons; around that central proton is a unit of force. Now we are beginning to appreciate what the alchemist did, because we realize that each element we know in nature exists by virtue of its basic atom, that the element is determined by the number of electrons in that atom. Now if someone with a smart mind and a bit of audacity thrown in, takes one little electron out of the atom he changes the atom; therefore, he changes base metal into gold. If he only takes one little electron out of the atom, then it becomes the unit of something else. Or if he adds one more electron, then it becomes the unit of something else. Each one of the modifications in this basic pattern changes the substance at the root, the only place it can be changed. Once the compounds are built up, they cannot be changed except by changing the basic units of which they are composed.

Now if you could magnify the atom to the size of our universe, presuming you could do it, and you could stand and look at it, probably it would look like the universe. No two of these little electrons touch each other, there is an infinite space between all of them, an eternity of experience, light years, light ages, measured by their own light impact, and instead of being a solid, the little atom is a mass of gauzy fragments, and in the center is a little sun, burning, throwing out energy, going to sleep and resting—the whole mystery of the universe is in this tiny center of power. And when you look at the atom mentally, look at it in terms of formula, in terms of mathematics, and then you turn to the universe and perceive things you cannot see with your eyes, but have to look at in terms of formula and mathematics, you look at one and then the other, both formulas, both unknowable to the little thing we are. How anyone can make that comparison and not feel that something immense is lurking in the background of things, it seems to me, is lacking in the common human impulse. It must take an awful lot of training to train God out of the scientific mind. You have to settle down and make a career out of it, because not only do you have this tremendous energy factor, but you have the thing that differentiates the chaos from a cosmos; you have in this pattern an infinite control of function and purpose. It is just as impossible to conceive of the atom as an accident as to conceive of the universe as an accident. Everywhere throughout this pattern is the one thing all human beings accept and depend upon, and that is the dependency of these relationships.

Manly P. Hall, Excerpt from an unnumbered lecture - "The Metaphysical Structure of the Atom", delivered January 19, 1947, pages 7-9 of 12.

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