(1b) Lessons from an Atom – Part 2: The Network

In Part 1 of this blog we focused on the heart of an atom – the nucleus, and how it relates to our personal “tribe”. 

In Part 2 we’ll discover that what an atom calls it’s “electron cloud” we think of as our “network”.  

Pure elements have their place in the universe, but compounds are really where it’s at.  In the same way, hanging with our tribe is great, but we were made for a wider community.


SCIENTIFIC DEFINITION: “(noun) the smallest particle of an element that can exist either alone or in combination” (from Merriam-Webster.com )

GEOFF’S DEFINITION: The littlest things make a world of difference


In Part 1 of this blog we covered the basic physics of the atom.  If you haven’t already read that one, you can link to it here.

Just a quick reminder from Part 1 of this blog:

Atoms consist of just three components:




Electrons float around the outside of the nucleus in an ORBITAL, the path of which is so convoluted that physicists don’t actually know where an electron is at any given moment, only where it is “most likely to be”.  But, for our purpose today, let’s just point out that the electrons are moving around the nucleus in many, many different places and directions.

When the ratio of protons to electrons is off, the atom becomes an “ion”.  This gives the atom an overall charge of either:

        • Positive when PROTONS > ELECTRONS, or

        • Negative when PROTONS < ELECTRONS

Much like each of us, atoms don’t tend to do much in isolation.  They prefer the company of others.  They often make these important connections with others through the sharing of electrons.  

When you combine atoms of more than one element together into a molecule you get a “compound”.   Compounds form everything from water to clothing fibers to gasoline.  Some compounds are simple like table salt (sodium and chloride, NaCl), others are far more complicated like polyester (C6H4(COOH)2)

Similar to a compound is an “alloy”.   An alloy is a material made by physically (rather than chemically) combining a metal with something else – either another metal or a non-metal element.   The benefit of most alloys is that you can get benefits from each of the elements.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Common examples of alloys we see every day would be:
–  Steel (iron + carbon) (metal + non-metal)
–  Brass (copper + zinc) (metal + metal)


So, you might be wondering how these dissimilar atoms bond with each other.  That brings us back to ions.  Remember, an ion is an atom that has its number of protons and electrons out of balance.   To get in balance the atom needs to either gain or lose one or more electrons.   In general, there are two ways this happens.  In both cases the atom will bond with another atom that has a similar problem.

  • Covalent Bond – when the atoms “share” one or more electrons
  • Ionic Bond – when one atom “gives up” one or more electrons
    • Ionic bonds are often stronger than covalent bonds

For a really cool way to see how atoms relate to each other and to heat, check out this awesome interactive periodic table.

One of the most amazing atomic relationships is between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom – we know it as WATER!  Check out this great webpage from Sciencing.com.

Summary (in case you need the reminder)

  • Protons are positive
  • Neutrons are neutral
  • Protons + Neutrons = a Nucleus
  • Electrons are negative
  • Electrons + Nucleus = an Atom
  • Atoms with the same number of protons = an Element
  • Atom + Atom = a Molecule
  • Element(A) + Element(B) = a Compound
  • If #Protons ≠ #Electrons = an Ion
  • If Nucleus is unstable = isotope (radioactive)
  • If there are different elements combined mechanically it’s an alloy

NASA APPLICATION: How will it help humans get to Mars?

Let’s think about what astronauts will need to get Mars.   The most obvious thing they need is a rocket/spaceship.  In Part 1 of the blog we talked about some of the pure elements they will use, but most of their equipment will be made from compounds.

The exterior of the ships have usually been made of alloys that include aluminum and titanium.  These materials are very strong and will hold their shape in the midst of the stresses that the ship will be subjected to from liftoff to the vacuum of space.  They are also extremely light compared to other metals that could be used.  So the combination of strength and weight make these good materials.  However, the new ships being built by Elon Musk and SpaceX will use a special type of steel.  Here is a great article about its properties.

The ship will contain miles of wires that will run all of the computers end critical electronics.  In Part 1 we talked about many of these being made of copper.  But some of the them will be fiber-optic cables made from silica (a compound of silicon and oxygen) that are even lighter and more efficient at transferring data with light impulses.

There will be countless other compounds:  fiberglass (insulation); nylon (bags, uniforms); plastic (switches, lights); dyes (printing knobs/dials/displays); and much more.

LIFE APPLICATION: How will it get YOU to your M.A.R.S.

                     M.A.R.S = My Amazing Real Something   (the “something” varies by person and  changes over time)

The “electrons” in our life are those people in our network.  These are the people who orbit around us and connect us with others in ways that help us become a molecule.

If we only associate with other atoms that are just like us, then we may become a “pure element”.  But often pure elements are not nearly as useful.  If we engage with a diverse network of different elements/atoms, then we can become a compound, or an alloy, like steel!  In this way, we can be part of something greater than each of us could be alone.  Electrons aren’t a part of our nucleus but without them, our charge gets unbalanced and we become an ion! 

An electron can never become part of an atom’s nucleus, but as humans we can have people move from our extended network into our tribe, or out of tribe in to the network.   In part 1 of the blog we talked about the need to ensure that you have the right people in your nucleus, but we didn’t talk about where those people come from.  Most often, they will come from your network.  Therefore, it can greatly benefit us if we grow our network – both in size and diversity.  

So how do we make these connections with others?  Believe it or not, we create bonds in ways very similar to atoms!

  • SHARING: (a covalent bond) This is when you offer to share something with someone else.  Through the act of sharing you create a special bond with the other person.
    • Example:  Your car dies and cannot be repaired.   A coworker hears your story and offers to give you a ride to work until you can find a new car.  They share their car with you.
  • GIVING: (an ionic bond) In this case you are giving something up for the other person – you are sacrificing to help meet their need.  That causes the bond to be a little deeper, a little stronger.   And, in many cases, ionic bonds in nature are stronger than covalent bonds.
    • Example:  Your car dies and cannot be repaired.  A coworker hears your story and offers to give you a car.

One last thought about electrons… The “electrons” in our lives play an important and positive role.   But it’s interesting to observe that the only polarity allowed inside the nucleus of an atom is either positive or neutral.   We should be just as diligent about keeping “negative” people out of our nucleus.


I would like to close this post with a challenge to each of you to spend some time examining your atomic make up.  Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Who are you connected with, outside of your nucleus/tribe?
  • Is your network diverse in a way that makes you part of a stronger compound?
  • How can you form some new ionic (sacrificial) bonds this week?

To help you take an inventory of those in your network I would encourage you to consider Amy Waninger’s website and her book  “Network Beyond Bias”.  Sometimes it’s hard for us to recognize where our network is letting us down because it lacks diversity.  Diversity of more than color and ethnicity.


Please take a moment and leave me a comment below.  I would love your input, especially if this post speaks to you.   Also, please take a moment and subscribe to keep up on the upcoming posts.
Geoff McCuen

Recommended Links and Resources

Fun “atom” related videos:

Neutron Dance” – Pointer Sisters

The Elements” – Tom Lehrer

Helpful websites

Think Like a Rocket Scientist” by Ozan Varol (a real rocket scientist)    I really loved this book!  Strongly recommend it.

Explain That Stuff” website

Physics for idiots” website

Diffen.com” website

Thought Co.com” website

Sciencing” website

1 thought on “(1b) Lessons from an Atom – Part 2: The Network”

  1. Thanks for the nod to my book, Geoff! I’m excited to see the work you’re doing. This intersection of science and personal growth is a fun and unique perspective. Kudos!

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