Oppenheimer continues to be a fascinating topic but for some scientists it’s also an opportunity to set the record straight.
One physicist from the Aix Marseille University in France shows that Oppenheimer got wrong one major fact: there is no empty space inside of an atom.
In the latest Christophr Nolan movie, Kitty Oppenheimer asks J. Robert Oppenheimer for a quantum mechanics explanation and, according to Mario Barbatti, his answer is very off.
For context, here is what the Oppenheimer scene says:
“Kitty Oppenheimer: Can you explain quantum mechanics to me?
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Well, this glass, this drink, this counter top, uhh.. our bodies, all of it. It’s mostly empty space. Groupings of tiny energy waves bound together.
Kitty Oppenheimer: By what?
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Forces of attraction strong enough to convince us [that] matter is solid, to stop my body passing through yours.”
In response, Mario Barbatti, a theoretical chemist and physicist researching light and molecule interactions, says that this “empty atom” theory is one of the most repeated mistakes in popular science. He credits the proliferation of this idea to Carl Sagan and his famous TV series Cosmos from 1980.
In an essay published by Aeon.co, he explains the following:
“The camera zooms in on the person’s arm to reveal the cells, then a cell nucleus. A DNA strand grows on the screen. The camera focuses on a single atom within the strand, dives into a frenetic cloud of rocketing particles, crosses it, and leaves us in oppressive darkness. An initially imperceptible tiny dot grows smoothly, revealing the atomic nucleus.
The narrator lectures that the nucleus of an atom is tens of thousands of times smaller than the atom itself, and poetically concludes that we are made from emptiness.
How often have you seen such a scene or read something equivalent to it in popular science?
I am sure plenty, if you are fans of this genre like me. However, the narrative is wrong.
Atomic nuclei in a molecule are not tiny dots, and there are no empty spaces within the atom.”
Barbatti also ran a poll on Twitter / X to ask his followers if they agreed with Carl Sagan’s claim that atoms are mainly empty space – and 43% said yes.
Clearly, this is one hotly debated topic, and the discussion will only intensify after more people watch Oppenheimer.
Even on YouTube the topic of what’s inside an atom and how you should look at it is evenly divided. Take a look at these fascinating videos on the emptiness of atoms.