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The function of atoms is determinable but does this guarantee physical existence?

  1. Apr 19, 2012 #1
    I know this topic has been addressed on this forum ad nauseam and please redirect my post if it is posted incorrectly.

    The basis for my view is that the scientific method will not be able to distinguish between different views which make the same observational predictions.

    I do understand that atoms exist in a functional sense and we are able to prove this by the characteristics they exhibit as well as through experimentation but without getting philosophical about what "really exists or what it means to 'exist' " can we really say with absolute certainty that atoms are really physical constructs?

    I know atoms exhibit physical characteristics. In a sense they absolutely do physically exist but what, in the accumulated data, makes it certain that they are not just an arrangement of energy that suggests physical existence? Light bouncing off of them, or electrons, is not really an absolute indicator that they are physically present, as we perceive them to be today. Could an atom be something such as a segment of energy that is arranged in a particular way to create these functions?

    If atoms are not physically present, as we currently perceive them to be according to scientific consensus, it could have implications for things such as cosmology (formation of the universe) but in terms of everyday life, yes I understand it is a pointless topic. I have a nagging, somewhat romantic, notion that the atom is not actually composed of neutrons, protons and electrons but individual "fields" that exhibit those characteristics. Any thoughts on this?

    some of the basic principals which are used to validate their physical existence are stated below, but these explanations, as far as I can determine don't really prove but merely indicate:

    Observations in chemistry such as the ideal gas law and the nature of chemical reactions.

    The quantum mechanical description of atoms predicts, to an astonishingly accuracy, the details of atomic spectra.

    Individual ions (electrically charged atoms) can be manipulated with electric and magnetic fields.

    There are even elevation maps of surfaces that show the bumps caused by individual atoms.

    This technology has even been used to model the IBM logo with individual atoms!
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 19, 2012 #2


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    There are objects which behave like the atoms in every experiment we performed up to now. Therefore, these objects are called "atoms" with the usual meaning in physics.
    Physics always makes models. It does not tell you "there are tiny particles", just "every measurement is in agreement with the theory that there are tiny particles".

    Where is the difference between protons and neutrons and your "fields", if no measurement can distinguish between them?
    Actually, you might be interested in the concept of quantum field theory ;).
  4. Apr 19, 2012 #3


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    Albert Einstein, in a single year, wrote four papers that changed physics. In addition to his papers on relativity, that everyone remembers, and the paper on the photo-electric effect that formed the basis for quantum theory, he wrote a paper on Brownian motion that effectively showed that Brownian motion was evidence for the existence of molecules and atoms.
  5. Apr 19, 2012 #4
    Thank you for the suggestion. I will look that concept up. Functionally there would be very little difference in the vast majority of scenarios aside from how you would conceptualize them in your mind. Perhaps if we understood the atom to be different we would be able to approach it differently. It could possibly open up new doorways on how we could alter or combine atoms. It could also put a new spin on cause/effect relationships at the atomic level. Perhaps we could even do something that does not occur naturally with this perspective. Just got back from 3 mile run hope I am making sense haha.
  6. Apr 19, 2012 #5


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    This topic falls under metaphysics or philosophy, not physics per se. The appropriate place is therefore our Philosophy forum (a sub-forum of General Discussion, in case you haven't seen it yet). Before posting there, please note the guidelines posted at the top of that forum.
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