Catholic Free Press
Remember learning about electrons in science class? How atoms are made up of protons and neutrons in the nucleus with electrons orbiting around them in energy levels, similar to how solar systems orbit a center of mass? It is perplexing to a young mind to conceive of electrons because we do not think of them moving as planets, but rather as a cloud in the whole orbital at once. Further, when electrons move from one orbital level to another, we do not think of them moving through space, but jumping instantaneously from one level to another.
Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922, called these states “quantum levels”. According to quantum mechanics, electrons are either here or there, but not in between, and when they are here or there, they are moving in that whole place all at once.
Not a few students have difficulty with this concept. They try to imagine this motion with mental images, but mental images are limited to what we can see or touch. To reason beyond the senses requires the intellect, and most adults do not even realize there is a difference, including scientists.
We need the intellect to understand them too. St. Thomas described angels and their motion at length in the Summa Theologica. They can move as we describe quantum motion, discretely, not through space. It blew my mind when I read a story about a luncheon conversation between Niels Bohr and a Thomistic philosopher named Mortimer J. Adler in the 1920′s. They were discussing electrons and angels.
In his book, Angels and Us, Mr. Adler wrote that he was the only philosopher at a table of eminent physicists, among them Mr. Bohr. The physicists were noting how original this quantum movement of electrons was, like nothing they had ever heard before. Mr. Adler replied that it was not a novel idea at all! This kind of movement was described in the thirteenth century by St. Aquinas in his writing about the discontinuous movement of angels. Angels sometimes move like Niels Bohr’s electrons of early quantum mechanics, from one place to another instantly, surrounding the whole place where they are.
No doubt there was quite a surprise to learn that a theologian had deduced a movement that modern science would not discover for another 650 years. One can only wonder what might happen to scientific progress if students were once again taught scholastic philosophical thought.
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