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Modeling the Atom

One of my many odd hobbies is an abiding interest in and passion for science, particularly the quirky, mind-boggling world of physics. For light bedtime reading, I keep a copy of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on my nightstand. Yeah, I’m a geek.

However, most of physics isn’t so ‘easy’ to understand. As a liberal arts major with a significant math impediment, trying to wrap my head around things like string theory is a big brain stretcher. So I decided, while sitting in the DFW airport with nothing much else to do, to see how I could use visual models to simply illustrate a few scientific concepts. I figured if I could do that, maybe I could even explain them to someone else, like my daughter.

I decided to start simple and create a model for the particles we are most familiar with, the atoms that make up the matter we can see and touch. Since I wanted to show how the different parts of an atom relate to each other, using a Business Data Diagram (BDD) seemed like a good idea.

Starting off with the atom, we know from elementary school that these are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Every atom is composed of at least one electron and one proton, but since the lightest element, hydrogen, lacks a neutron, the relationship of the atom to the neutron is ‘n’ instead of ‘1…n.’ Of course, protons and neutrons can only be part of one atom, so their relationship to the atom is shown as ‘1.’ But electrons can be shared between atoms in covalent bonding, so the relationship of electron to the atom is also shown as ‘1…n.’ Bearing in mind that there are limits to how big atoms can get, ‘n’ probably isn’t really an accurate way to show the relationships here, but I decided that’s okay since ‘n’ means ‘many,’ not ‘an infinite amount.’ Good enough.

However, now we have to go past elementary school science, since we’ve learned that protons and neutrons aren’t really elementary particles but actually groupings of smaller things called quarks. There are essentially two types of quarks in the nucleus of an atom, up and down (there are flavors of up and down quarks, but we’ll leave those out for now).  The quarks are pretty easy to add to the model. The proton is comprised of one down and two up, and the neutron is two down and one up.

This turns out to be a pretty simple diagram. There’s a lot more information we could show, but the BDD might not be the best way to do it. I can, however, add one more layer of information to this BDD. Using color coding, I can show which particles in this model are fundamental – meaning they have no internal structure that we know of, and which are composite, meaning they are made up of other stuff. There are a lot of other ways to categorize particles, but this simple distinction makes sense for this model. I updated the key to explain the color coding.


Fortunately, there’s a whole lot more to physics than this diagram shows. That’s what makes our universe so dang interesting. But that’s why we usually use more than one visual model on a project, isn’t it?

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