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Friday, June 25, 2010


Illustration Friday's word of the week sends my mind in unusual directions.
"Satellite" makes me think of science, and my science education was spotty. I had an obligatory biology class in college, but even the teacher knew it was a joke. I also took biology in high school, but quickly discovered that I was expected to cut up long-dead, soggy animals floating in formaldehyde, and the boys in class thought it was funny to leave them on my chair or drop them down the back of my shirt. I quit going to class, but passed the final, so somehow managed to graduate high school.

I've found studying science is much more fun by hanging out with scientists. One pleasant memory involved a long walk with my nuclear physicist friend, Dr. Philip Ugorowski, Research Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department. He told me to forget the classic image of an atom as a solid ball with a smaller solid ball orbiting around it. I didn't need to forget it. With my spotty science education, I never learned it in the first place. He talked about the nucleus as a jostling swarm of bees, and I happily absorbed his explanation of the orbiting electrons as more bees, or maybe gnats.

We drank wine, enjoyed the sun and trees, and he waxed poetic about nuclear fusion with a lot of laughter about which insects best represented the different functions of atoms and molecules. When he started on fission, I said we had to stop because my brain was too full and couldn't accept any more knowledge at that time. Sometimes it occurs to me that we've never revisited fission, so my education remains incomplete.

It was a satisfying day, and a good memory. I cannot think of atoms as anything other than some assortment of buzzing insects that are full of life and energy.

I gave Phil a chance to comment on this blog posting...

The usual picture of an atom is the little balls orbiting the nucleus, which looks like a clump of balls. That picture was outdated by the end of the 1920's, but it was used as the logo for the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), entered popular culture, and now there seems to be no getting rid of it. I think you have the right analogy for the nucleus, but the "orbiting" electrons are a little tricky.

When we say "orbit" we think of things like moons (natural satellites) or artificial satellites. Even the Milky Way galaxy has two smaller galaxies (the clouds of Magellan) orbiting it. The lighter mass goes around the heavier mass, but even the heavier mass moves in a small circle. The motion of the earth perturbs the suns' motion slightly. The electrons around the atom are more like clouds with areas where you might find an electron and areas where you would not. Since the electron acts more like a wave than a ball in this situation, it goes between the areas where it may be found without passing through the areas where it may not be found, even though the "forbidden" areas lie between the "allowed" areas. Thus, it does not "orbit" like a satellite, even though in chemistry they talk of "electron orbits".

What happened to the whimsy of buzzing bees? I think I should've given him some wine before asking his opinion of my post, or maybe not written when he's at work? I said as much in my email response, and he added the following...

BTW, the clouds of Magellan are called "satellite galaxies" if you want to include that. Today my head is filled with numbers and spreadsheets, so my poetic neurons are taking a break.

Let's just hope Phil sorts out his budget and gets some grants for funding. I don't think I'm going to progress science too much with doodles of buzzing bees!


  1. What a nice take on this week's illustration challenge.

  2. Thanks Jez. Not so sure everyone wanted a science lesson, but I like thinking of buzzing bee atoms :)

  3. Wow Linda! Thanks for all the great info... and the terrific illustration!

  4. Thanks Jack! Or rather, maybe thank Phil?

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  6. I'm not sure how to respond to an anonymous comment with links to ads. I'm happy that people can check out the blogs of people leaving comments, but I don't really want to be a vehicle for merchandise. I'd hate to be pushed to block comments because of spam.

  7. Oh, can't you delete them? I think once they have you lined up, then they have you lined up?

    Thanks for the science lesson. You have a wonderful sense of humour. And your writing style is very enjoyable.

    Maybe you should be in the 'let's make science fun' business?

  8. I couldn't figure out how to delete them, so I just let them lie there with my protest.

    Thanks for the compliment and the inspiration. I might let my mind work on fun science for a while. Maybe I could get Phil to collaborate with me?