Eddington 1927: Structure of Atom


Reference: The Nature of the Physical World

This paper presents Chapter 1 (section 1) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color based on present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.



Between 1905 and 1908 Einstein and Minkowski introduced fundamental changes in our ideas of time and space. In 1911 Rutherford introduced the greatest change in our idea of matter since the time of Democritus. The reception of these two changes was curiously different. The new ideas of space and time were regarded on all sides as revolutionary; they were received with the greatest enthusiasm by some and the keenest opposition by others. The new idea of matter underwent the ordinary experience of scientific discovery; it gradually proved its worth, and when the evidence became overwhelmingly convincing it quietly supplanted previous theories. No great shock was felt.  And yet when I hear today protests against the Bolshevism of modern science and regrets for the old-established order, I am inclined to think that Rutherford, not Einstein, is the real villain of the piece. When we compare the universe as it is now supposed to be with the universe as we had ordinarily preconceived it, the most arresting change is not the rearrangement of space and time by Einstein but the dissolution of all that we regard as most solid into tiny specks floating in void. That gives an abrupt jar to those who think that things are more or less what they seem. The revelation by modern physics of the void within the atom is more disturbing than the revelation by astronomy of the immense void of interstellar space.

At the beginning of 20th century, the revolutionary changes were introduced into our ideas of space, time and substance. These changes have been very jarring.

The atom is as porous as the solar system. If we eliminated all the unfilled space in a man’s body and collected his protons and electrons into one mass, the man would be reduced to a speck just visible with a magnifying glass.

This porosity of matter was not foreshadowed in the atomic theory. Certainly it was known that in a gas  like air the atoms are far separated, leaving a great deal  of empty space; but it was only to be expected that material with the characteristics of air should have relatively little substance in it, and “airy nothing” is a common phrase for the insubstantial. In solids the atoms are packed tightly in contact, so that the old atomic theory agreed with our preconceptions in regarding solid bodies as mainly substantial without much interstice.

The atom was thought to be solid. The “space” found in atom was quite a surprise. But could this “space” be simply a very low density substance like light? The whole spectrum of electromagnetic radiation falls into this category. (Please see Matter, Light, Substance and Innate Force).

The electrical theory of matter which arose towards the end of the nineteenth century did not at first alter this view. It was known that the negative electricity was concentrated into unit charges of very small bulk; but the other constituent of matter, the positive electricity, was pictured as a sphere of jelly of the same dimensions as the atom and having the tiny negative charges embedded in it. Thus the space inside a solid was still for the most part well filled.

But in 1911 Rutherford showed that the positive electricity was also concentrated into tiny specks. His scattering experiments proved that the atom was able to exert large electrical forces which would be impossible unless the positive charge acted as a highly concentrated source of attraction; it must be contained in a nucleus minute in comparison with the dimensions of the atom.  Thus for the first time the main volume of the atom was entirely evacuated, and a “solar system” type of atom was substituted for a substantial “billiard-ball”. Two years later Niels Bohr developed his famous theory on the basis of the Rutherford atom and since then rapid progress has been made. Whatever further changes of view are in prospect, a reversion to the old substantial atoms is unthinkable.

A “solar system” type atomic model for the atom developed from Rutherford’s experiments. Here low density, negatively charged electrons were circling a highly dense, positively charged  nucleus in a plane. The highly dense nucleus was like a tiny speck, but the low density electrons formed a sort of a cloud.

The accepted conclusion at the present day is that all varieties of matter are ultimately composed of two elementary constituents—protons and electrons. Electrically these are the exact opposites of one another, the proton being a charge of positive electricity and the electron a charge of negative electricity. But in other respects their properties are very different. The proton has 1840 times the mass of the electron, so that nearly all the mass of matter is due to its constituent protons.  The proton is not found unadulterated except in hydrogen, which seems to be the most primitive form of matter, its atom consisting of one proton and one electron. In other atoms a number of protons and a lesser number of electrons are cemented together to form  a nucleus; the electrons required to make up the balance are scattered like remote satellites of the nucleus,  and can even escape from the atom and wander freely  through the material. The diameter of an electron is about 1/50,000 of the diameter of an atom; that of the nucleus is not very much larger; an isolated proton is supposed to be much smaller still.

In 1927, the neutron was not yet discovered. Therefore, the nucleus was assumed to consist of positively charged protons, and a combination of protons and electrons. The proton was found to be 1840 times denser than the electron. Some of the electrons around the nucleus could even wander off leaving a positively charged atom behind.

Thirty years ago there was much debate over the question of aether-drag—whether the earth moving round the sun drags the aether with it. At that time the solidity of the atom was unquestioned, and it was difficult to believe that matter could push its way through the aether without disturbing it. It was surprising and perplexing to find as the result of experiments that no convection of the aether occurred. But we now realise that the aether can slip through the atoms as easily as through the solar system, and our expectation is all the other way.

With this structure of atom we can now see that aether can easily slip through the atom and there would be no drag.

We shall return to the “solar system” atom in later chapters. For the present the two things which concern us are (i) its extreme emptiness, and (2) the fact that it is made up of electrical charges.

The extreme emptiness of the atom could actually be filled with “aether”, which seems to be a very low density substance like a force field as postulated by Faraday. The electrical charges within the atom occur at the interface between the electron cloud and the proton speck. This interface consists of an extremely high gradient of density from electron to proton. This may have something to do with the strain that appears as electrical charge.

Rutherford’s nuclear theory of the atom is not usually counted as one of the scientific revolutions of the present century. It was a far-reaching discovery, but a discovery falling within the classical scheme of physics. The nature and significance of the discovery could be stated in plain terms, i.e. in terms of conceptions already current in science. The epithet “revolutionary” is usually reserved for two great modern developments—the Relativity Theory and the Quantum Theory. These are not merely new discoveries as to the content of the world; they involve changes in our mode of thought about the world. They cannot be stated immediately in plain terms because we have first to grasp new conceptions undreamt of in the classical scheme of physics.

Rutherford’s model of atom seems to fall within the classical scheme of physics. Can the Relativity Theory and the Quantum Theory also be brought in line with the classical scheme? This may be possible because the change in the characteristics of space and time parallels the change in wavelength and period in the electromagnetic spectrum; and the Quantum theory seems to address the density of the substance in electromagnetic spectrum. (Please see Particle, Quantum and Mass).

I am not sure that the phrase “classical physics” has ever been closely defined. But the general idea is that the scheme of natural law developed by Newton in the Principia provided a pattern which all subsequent developments might be expected to follow. Within the four corners of the scheme great changes of outlook were possible; the wave-theory of light supplanted the corpuscular theory; heat was changed from substance (caloric) to energy of motion; electricity from continuous  fluid to nuclei of strain in the aether. But this was all allowed for in the elasticity of the original scheme.  Waves, kinetic energy, and strain already had their place in the scheme; and the application of the same conceptions to account for a wider range of phenomena was a tribute to the comprehensiveness of Newton’s original outlook.

We have now to see how the classical scheme broke down.

The scheme of natural law developed by Newton applied to the mateial substance. The elasticity of this scheme allowed the wave-theory of light, the motion-theory of heat and the strain-theory of electricity. Can the classical scheme be extended to the new theories of Relativity and Quantum?



The classical scheme of physics goes back to Newton. Newton’s scheme of natural law primarily applies to material substance, but it has been elastic enough to be applied to the wave-theory of light, the motion-theory of heat and the strain-theory of electricity.

The recently discovered structure of atom introduces us to non-atomic substances that make up the atom (please see Matter, Light, Substance and Innate Force). These substances appear as proton, electron and electromagnetic radiation. Proton has a very high density, electron has a very low density, and the electromagnetic radiation has a density lower still.

The Quantum theory appears to deal with the density of the non-atomic substances (please see Particle, Quantum and Mass). The Relativity theory seems to deal with the space and time characteristics of non-atomic substances (as these characteristics relate to their wavelength and period). It, therefore, appears possible that the classical scheme of physics may be extended to these new theories of Quantum and Relativity.


Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: