#1 Lessons from an Atom

Each of my blogs will be laid out in the following 4 sections:

  1. The Topic: including pronunciation, scientific definition, Geoff’s definition
  2. The Physics: a basic explanation of the physics related to the topic
  3.  NASA Application: How will it help humans get to the planet Mars
  4. Life Application:  How will it help you get to your own M.A.R.S.


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

THE PHYSICS: What is an atom?

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.  Just like the toy blocks, there is only a limited variety of them (just 92 naturally occurring elements), but everything in the whole universe is made from 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.  In fact, 96% of your body is made up of just four types of atoms; oxygen (O), carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and nitrogen (N).

To the casual observer, and 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)

Electrons move around the outside of the nucleus in an ORBITAL, the path of which is so convoluted that we 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.

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.

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

We’ll talk more about ions later on.

When atoms combine together they form molecules.  If all the atoms in a molecule are the same type, then you have a pure element.   Every atom in the universe that has the same number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus is the same kind of element.  For example, if an atom has 82 protons in the nucleus then it’s a lead atom.  If it has 79 protons then it’s gold.  That’s right.  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. This disintegration of the atom is measured in terms of a “half-life”.  Literally, this is a measure of how much time it takes for half of the atoms to split up and become something else.  So, if you had a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 1 hour, and at the top of the hour you had 1 kg of it, at the end of the hour you would only have ½ kg left.  An hour later you would only have ¼ kg left, and so forth.

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 water (H2O) or table salt (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 purpose of most alloys is that you can get something better than either element by its self – 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

For a really cool way to see how atoms relate to each other and to heat, check out this awesome interactive periodic table    https://www.ptable.com/

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.   The most obvious thing they need is a rocket/spaceship.  Each of the components of the ship will need to have specific characteristics that come from the types of atoms (elements, compounds, alloys, etc.) that it’s made with.  

The exterior of the ship will be made of compounds like aluminium 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.

The ship will be full of miles of wires that will run all of the computers end critical electronics.  Most of these wires will be made of copper, because it is very efficient at transferring electrical signals with minimal resistance.  Others will be fiber-optic cables made from silica (compound of silicon and oxygen) that are even lighter and more efficient at transferring data with light impulses.


The fuel will be made primarily from hydrogen and oxygen.   This a fascinating bit of physics (chemistry) going in the rocket’s engines.  In future blog posts we’ll talk about relevant topics like force, pressure, thrust, etc.  But for this blog on atoms consider the atoms in the rocket fuel.  

Oxygen is an inflammable gas.    Hydrogen won’t burn on it’s own.   But put them together and add some heat… and look out!

Heat (covered in a later blog) causes the energy in the atoms to increase, when it’s hot enough, even just the flame of a candle or a small spark, 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.

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

Whether you call it a Tribe, Network or Family, you already understand that “other people” play an integral part in your life.  The people that we most closely associate with largely determine who we are.  Many other authors have written about this for decades.

  • “We are the average of the 5 people closest to us” Jim Rhone
  • “Your reference group (people you habitually associate with) determine as much as 95% of your success or failure in life” Dr. David McCleland
  • “You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.”  Charles “Tremendous” Jones

I would like to offer my own analogy to this discussion… consider that you are an ATOM!

Think of the people around you as protons, neutrons and electrons.   The people you “let in”, those who are closest to you, comprise your nucleus.  Just like an atom, your nucleus determines what kind of “element” you are!

Therefore, changing the makeup of your nucleus can enable you to become something new.  Remember, you can change lead into gold with only a 3% change in the makeup of its nucleus.  Just 3%!

If you feel like “a lead weight” or a “lead balloon” and want to become “solid gold”, changing your nucleus could be the key.

We are also like atoms in that we need to maintain a proper balance of people in our nucleus.  If our nucleus gets out of balance, we can become an isotope, or “radioactive”.  Do you know some people who are radioactive?  How much could they benefit from having the right kinds of people in their nucleus?

The “electrons” in our life are those people in our extended 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, and what did we learn about ions earlier?  They create bonds in two ways – much like we do!

  • SHARING: 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.
  • GIVING: 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.

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 in 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 is in your nucleus, defining the kind of element you are?
  • Who are your electrons, connecting you with others?
  • 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 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

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