(1a) Lessons from an Atom – Part 1: The Nucleus

Do you ever feel small or invisible?  Do you ever feel like you’re as heavy as a “lead” weight, or as light as a “helium” balloon?  

Atoms are extremely small, practically invisible.  Some atoms actually are lead and others are helium.  

But that’s not where the similarities between you and an atom end.  You have a LOT more in common with the atom than you may have ever realized!


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


I need to begin by saying that this post will not do justice to the “atom”.  It’s just too short.   The more I learn about them, the more fascinating I find them to be.  

Think of atoms like the LEGO© blocks of the universe.  Everything is made of them.  Atoms make up everything from a single virus to an entire hospital; from a drop of water to a cruise ship; from a grain of sand to a whole planet!  The whole universe is nothing but various combinations of these same small atoms.  While there may be a seemingly unlimited total number of atoms, just like the toy blocks, there are a limited variety of them – just 118 (discovered so far) – called “elements”.
In fact, 96% of your body is made up of just four types of atoms; oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and nitrogen (N).

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll focus on a very simplistic understanding of how atoms are “made”.  But please understand that the actual science and math behind how they really work is incredibly more complicated.  Here is what you need to know for today’s blog post:

Atoms consist of just three components:




The protons and neutrons are closely connected and live together inside the center of the atom to form what is called the NUCLEUS. (new-clee-us)

Protons are “positively” ( + ) charged, while Electrons are “negatively” ( – ) charged, and when they are equal in number the atom is “neutral” in its electrical charge.  Neutrons are neither positive nor negative, but they help to provide stability to the atom.

Throughout the entire universe, any two atoms with the same number of protons and neutrons in their nucleus are the same kind of element.  For example, if an atom on Earth has 82 protons in the nucleus then it’s a lead atom, and so is an atom with 82 protons in the Andromeda galaxy.  And if any atom has 79 protons then it’s gold.  Yes, the only difference between lead and gold is 3 protons in each atom!

While the number of neutrons is usually equal to (or close to) the number of protons in the nucleus, this relationship can get out of balance. When this happens, the atom will become unstable, and we call it an “isotope“.
Most isotopes are so unstable they become “radioactive”.  They begin breaking up and shooting some of their protons and neutrons off into other atoms.

Summary (in case you need it)

  • 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.  In Part 1 of this post we’ll focus on the pure elements, and Part 2 will focus on the compounds.

AIR:  One of the most important things they need is air to breathe.  We often hear about human’s need to breathe oxygen, but the air we breathe on a regular basis isn’t even one-quarter oxygen.  In fact, 98% of the air we breath on Earth is made up of just two elements:  78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen.  The air in our rocket ship won’t need to have this exact same ratio, but NASA will need to find ways to either manufacture or reclaim the oxygen for the astronauts.  

WIRES:  It may not be obvious when you look at pictures of the interior of spaceships or the International Space Station, but behind the panels will be miles of wires.  They will be essential to running all of the computers and critical electronics.  Most of these wires will be made of one element: copper.  Copper is very efficient at transferring electrical signals with minimal resistance.  

FUEL:  Of course the whole mission won’t even get off the ground with out some rocket fuel.  There are typically both solid and liquid fuels involved in space flight.  The liquid fuel will be made primarily from two elements: hydrogen and oxygen.   There is a fascinating bit of physics (chemistry) going on in the rocket’s engines.
   – Oxygen is an inflammable gas.
   – Hydrogen won’t burn on it’s own.
But put them together and add some heat… and look out!

In future blog posts we’ll talk about related topics like force, pressure, thrust, etc.  But for this blog we will only consider the atoms in the rocket fuel.

Heat (covered in a later blog) causes the energy in and between the atoms to increase and, when it’s hot enough, or the energy level is high enough, these two start to chemically react in a very powerful way.  The expanded volume (yes, another future topic) pushes out of the rocket engine with so much force it will lift this massive spaceship off the surface of the earth and out into space, on it’s way to Mars.

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

Each of us has our own M.A.R.S. – My Amazing Real (something)   What that “something” is varies from person to person.  Even from time to time within your life.   But to reach your M.A.R.S. you will need to grow. 

Personal growth starts with a solid understanding of who are are now.  What kind of “element” are you?

There are many tests and assessments available to help you learn about yourself.  I have found the following to be very insightful:

  • DISC Profile (Michelle McCuen, of The McCuen Group, is certified by the John Maxwell Group to administer the DISC profile and help you interpret the results.)
  • Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI) (also called Jung Types)  (here is a link to a free version)
  •  StrengthFinders
  • Why Institute:  Find Your Why (I enjoyed doing mine with Melahnie Ake
  • Predictive Index (PI)

Lot’s of things go into making you the person you are today.  Your childhood, your family, your life experiences, your religious beliefs, your career choice, and much more.  

Just like the atom has it’s nucleus that determines the kind of element it is, you have a “tribe” of people who represent your nucleus, and contribute to the person you are.   Jim Rhone put it this way, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Some of us have only one or two people close enough to be in our nucleus/tribe, while others have many more.  However, the size of your tribe isn’t what’s important.    It’s the makeup of the people who are in your tribe that matters.  (The nucleus of Radon is over 16 times the size of Carbon – but without Carbon there would no life on Earth, or diamonds!)

Important note:  Being “in your nucleus” isn’t the same as “in your life“.  You may have have people in your life, but not close enough to be in your nucleus.  In part 2 of this blog, we’ll talk about the people in your “network” – those who are around you at work, in organizations, a friend-of-a-friend, old high school classmates, etc.

Fortunately, unlike an atom, you have the ability to change the makeup of your nucleus.  You can determine who to let in and who to let go.   If you want to reach your M.A.R.S. you will need to take stock of who is in your tribe, what they contribute, and what effect they have on you.  Some of these people may encourage you, some of them may challenge you, and some of them may inspire you. 

Like an atom, you should only keep either positive protons or neutral neutrons in your tribe.   If you discover a negative electron has entered your nucleus you may need to kick them out.  (We’ll talk about electrons in Part 2).

However, if the balance of your tribe get’s out of whack you could become a radioactive isotope, and bring chaos to those around you.  Do you know someone like that?   Is it you?  You will have a very difficult time growing into your best self if your nucleus is out of balance.  In fact – radioactive elements even have a half-life. 


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 is in your nucleus, defining the kind of element you are?
  • Does your nucleus make you the element you want to be?
  • Is your nucleus unbalanced, causing you to be radioactive at times?
  • Is there someone you need to add or remove from your nucleus to become the element you want to be?

To help you take an inventory of those in your nucleus I would encourage you to consider Jason Barnaby’s website for “Firestarters”.  He has a great program using the “tribe” concept.  In particular he has a 3-part blog post to help you consider if you have the right kinds of people in your tribe or nucleus.


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

3 thoughts on “(1a) Lessons from an Atom – Part 1: The Nucleus”

  1. Great blog post. I love the way you point out the unusual connection between physics and personal development. I look forward to reading more of these.

  2. Hi Geoff! Here are my thoughts about this lesson, spoken with kind honesty and the perspective of fresh eyes. First, it was easy to get from one lesson to another, as I wanted to start at lesson 1A. The cartoons and Geoff’s definition made me smile. I like smiling. It feels nice. I felt like I cruised at a nice pace through the lesson and was making timely progress as the grey bar on the side of my screen moved its way to the bottom. Not too sluggish or feeling too bogged down with too much to read. The “summary” section was a thoughtful addition, helping me revisit my high school science classes. You made it very easy to continue any further curiosity with providing lots of clickable links. The content was clever and written in easily understood language, however, I personally struggled with the M.A.R.S acronym. I wanted to fill in the blank (the something) but could not make anything fit that was satisfactory, so as I read further, I felt a little disconnected. Just now, I went back to revisit the lesson, and in my mind, changed the “s” to self. (My Amazing Real Self – designed by God of course, with no pride involved but rather a discovering of who He made me to be) and that allowed me to read in manner connected to your message. Perhaps my love and value of words tripped me up here and a simple clarification from the author would have sufficed. Though I just read this one lesson so far, these would be engaging devotionals for junior high or high school students. Speaking as a home school mom, I value material that integrates subjects. I love what you are doing! Well done!

    1. Thank you so much for this comment and review! I really love the detail. That’s so helpful. Great point about the “Something” being too ambiguous without some additional information. I was envisioning the “something” could be different for everyone. Maybe it’s a career move, or an educational goal, or a new business, or a deeper relationship with God. Whatever that “something” is, you will need to be intentional about reaching it. These blogs are intended to offer guidance on how to do that. I love the idea of it also just being “self”. We are each wonderfully and fearfully made by God the Father, but sometimes we don’t see it or feel it. I also think you have just helped me identify a perfect audience – home school families! I really hope that you will continue to read the additional posts and offer great feedback. Thanks again.

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