The Rhythm of the Atoms
the world's finest minds can unravel only with difficulty the deeper
workings of nature, how could it be supposed that those workings are
merely a mindless accident, a product of blind chance?
Paul Davies, Professor of Theoretical Physics 31
Scientists are in general agreement that, on the basis of calculations,
the Big Bang took place about 17 billion years ago. All the matter making
up the universe was created from nothingness but with the wonderful
design that we talked about in the first two chapters. Nevertheless,
the universe that emerged from the Big Bang could have been much different
from the one that did emerge-ours.
For example, if the values of four fundamental forces were different,
the universe would have consisted of only radiation and become a tissue
of light with no stars, galaxies, human beings, or anything else. Thanks
to the extraordinary perfect balance of those four forces, "atoms"-the
building-blocks of that which is called "matter"-came into being.
Scientists are also in general agreement that the first two simplest
elements-hydrogen and helium-began to form during the first fourteen
seconds after the Big Bang. The elements were formed as a result of
a reduction in the universal entropy that was causing matter to scatter
everywhere. In other words, at first the universe was just an amassing
of hydrogen and helium atoms. If it had remained so, again there could
have been no stars, planets, stones, soil, trees, or human beings. It
would have been a lifeless universe consisting of only those two elements.
Carbon, the fundamental element of life, is a much heavier element
than hydrogen and helium. How did it come into being?
Searching for an answer to this question, scientists stumbled upon
one of the most surprising discoveries of this century.
The Structure of the Elements
is a science that deals with the composition, structure, and properties
of substances and with the transformations that they undergo. The bedrock
of modern chemistry is the periodic table of elements. First laid out
by Russian chemist Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev, the elements in the
periodic table are arranged according to their atomic structures. Hydrogen
occupies the first place in the table because it is the simplest of
all the elements, consisting of only one proton in its nucleus and one
electron revolving around it.
Protons are subatomic particles that carry a positive electrical charge
in the nucleus of an atom. Helium, with two protons, occupies the second
place in the periodic table. Carbon has six protons and oxygen has eight.
All the elements differ in the number of protons that they contain.
Another particle present in the nucleus of an atom is the neutron.
Unlike protons, neutrons do not carry an electrical charge: they are
neutral in other words, hence their name.
The third basic particle of which atoms are composed is the electron,
which has a negative electrical charge. In every atom, the number of
protons and electrons is the same. Unlike protons and neutrons however,
electrons are not located in the nucleus. Instead, they move around
the nucleus at a very high speed that keeps the positive and negative
charges of the atom apart.
The differences in atomic structure (the numbers of protons/electrons)
are what make the elements different from one another.
A crucial rule of (classical) chemistry is that elements cannot be
transformed into one another. Changing iron (with twenty-six protons)
into silver (with eighteen) would require removing eight protons from
the nucleus. But protons are bound together by the strong nuclear force
and the number of protons in a nucleus can be changed only in nuclear
reactions. Yet all the reactions that take place under terrestrial conditions
are chemical reactions that depend on electron exchange and that do
not effect the nucleus.
In the Middle Ages there was a "science" called alchemy-the forerunner
of modern chemistry. Alchemists, unaware of the periodic table or the
atomic structures of the elements, thought it was possible to transform
one element into another. (A favorite object of pursuit, for reasons
that should be apparent, was trying to turn iron into gold.) We now
know that what the alchemists were trying to do is impossible under
normal conditions such as exist on Earth: The temperatures and pressures
required for such a transformation to take place are too enormous to
achieve in any terrestrial laboratory. But it is possible if you have
the right place to do it in.
And the right place, it turns out, is in the hearts of stars.
The Universe's Alchemy Labs: Red Giants
The temperature required to overcome the reluctance of nuclei to change
is nearly 10 million degrees Celsius. This is why "alchemy" in the real
sense takes place only in stars. In medium-sized stars like the Sun,
the enormous energy being radiated is the result of hydrogen being fused
Red giants are huge stars about fifty times bigger than our
sun. Deep within these giants, an extraordinary process takes place.
Keeping this brief review of the chemistry of elements in mind, let
us return to the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang. We mentioned that
only helium and hydrogen atoms existed in the universe after the Big
Bang. Astronomers believe that solar-type stars (of which the Sun is
one) are formed as a result of nebulae (clouds) of hydrogen and helium
gas being compressed until the hydrogen-to-helium thermonuclear reaction
gets started. So now we have stars. But our universe is still lifeless.
For life, heavier elements-oxygen and carbon specifically-are required.
There needs to be another process whereby hydrogen and helium can be
converted into still other elements.
The "manufacturing-plants" of these heavy elements it turns out are
the red giants-a class of stars that are fifty times bigger than the
Red giants are much hotter than solar-type stars
and this characteristic enables them to do something other stars cannot:
They convert helium into carbon. Nevertheless, even for a red giant
this is not easy. As the astronomer Greenstein says: "Even now, when
the answer (as to how they do it) is well in hand, the method they employ
Helium's atomic weight is 2: that is, it has two protons in its nucleus.
Carbon's atomic weight is 6. In the fantastically high temperatures
of red giants, three helium atoms are fused into a carbon atom. This
is the "alchemy" that supplied the universe with its heavier elements
after the Big Bang.
But as we said: it's not easy. It's nearly impossible to persuade two
helium atoms to join together and quite impossible for three. So how
do the six protons needed for carbon get together?
It's a two-step process. First, two helium atoms are fused into an
intermediary element with four protons and four neutrons. Next, a third
helium is added to this intermediary element to make a carbon atom with
six protons and six neutrons.
The extraordinarily unstable isotope of beryllium
that is formed in red giants.
Normal beryllium as found on Earth.
The intermediary element is beryllium. Beryllium occurs naturally on
Earth but the beryllium that occurs in red giants is different in a
crucially important way: It consists of four protons and four neutrons,
whereas terrestrial beryllium has five neutrons. "Red-giant beryllium"
is a slightly different version. It's what's called an "isotope" in
Now comes the real surprise. The "red-giant" isotope beryllium turns
out to be incredibly unstable. Scientists have studied this isotope
for years and discovered that once it has formed, it breaks down again
in just 0.000000000000001 second.
How is this unstable beryllium isotope, which forms and disintegrates
in such a short time, able to unite with a helium atom to become a carbon
atom? It is like trying to lay a third brick on two other bricks that
shoot away from each other in 0.000000000000001 second if they chance
to come atop one another, and form a construction in this way. How does
this process take place in red giants? Physicists scratched their heads
over this puzzle for decades without coming up with an answer. The American
astrophysicist Edwin Salpeter finally discovered a clue to the mystery
in the concept of "atomic resonance".
Resonance and Double Resonance
Resonance is defined as the harmony of frequencies (vibrations) of
two different materials.
A simple example from ordinary experience will give us an idea of what
physicists mean by "atomic resonance". Imagine yourself and a child
at a playground where there are swings. The child sits on the swing
and you give him a push to get him started. To keep the swing moving,
you have to keep pushing it from behind. But the timing of these pushes
is important. Each time the swing approaches you, you have to apply
the force of the push just at the right moment: when the swing is at
the highest point of its motion towards you. If you push too soon, the
result is a collision that disturbs the rhythmic momentum of the swing;
if you push too late, the effort is wasted because the swing is already
moving away from you. In other words, the frequency of your pushes must
be in harmony with the frequency of the swing's approaches to you.
Physicists refer to such a "harmony of frequencies"
as "resonance". The swing has a frequency: for example it reaches you
every 1.7 seconds. Using your arms you push it every 1.7 seconds. Of
course if you want, you can change the frequency of the swing's motion,
but if you do, you have to change the frequency of the pushes as well,
otherwise the swing will not swing right.33
Just as two or more moving bodies can resonate, resonance
can also occur when one moving body causes motion in another. This type
of resonance is often seen in musical instruments and is called "acoustic
resonance". It can occur, for example, among two finely-tuned violins.
If one of these violins is played in the same room as the other, the
strings of the second will vibrate and produce a sound even though nobody
is touching it. Because both instruments have been precisely tuned to
the same frequency, a vibration in one causes a vibration in the other.34
The resonances in these two examples are simple ones and are easy to
keep the track of. There are other resonances in physics that are not
simple at all and in the case of atomic nuclei, the resonances can be
quite complex and sensitive.
Every atomic nucleus has a natural energy level that
physicists have been able to identify after lengthy study. These energy
levels are quite different from one another but a few rare instances
of resonance between atomic nuclei have been observed. When such resonance
occurs, the motions of the nuclei are in harmony with one another like
our examples of the swing and violin. The important point of this is
that the resonance expedites nuclear reactions that can affect the nuclei.35
Investigating how carbon was made by red giants, Edwin Salpeter suggested
that there must be a resonance between helium and beryllium nuclei that
facilitated the reaction. This resonance, he said, made it easier for
helium atoms to fuse into beryllium and this could account for the reaction
in red giants. Subsequent research however failed to support this idea.
Fred Hoyle was the first to discover the amazing equilibrium
of nuclear reactions taking place in red giants. Although an atheist,
Hoyle admitted that this balance could not be explained by chance
and that it was a deliberate arrangement.
Fred Hoyle was the second astronomer to address this question. Hoyle
took Salpeter's idea a step further, introducing the idea of "double
resonance". Hoyle said that there had to be two resonances: one that
caused two heliums to fuse into beryllium and one that caused the third
helium atom join this unstable formation. Nobody believed Hoyle. The
idea of such a precise resonance occurring once was hard enough to accept;
that it should occur twice was unthinkable. Hoyle pursued his research
for years and in the end he proved that his idea was right: there really
was a double resonance taking place in the red giants. At the exact
moment two helium atoms resonated in union, a beryllium atom appeared
in the 0.000000000000001 second needed to produce carbon. George Greenstein
describes why this double resonance is indeed an extraordinary mechanism:
There are three quite separate structures
in this story-helium, beryllium, and carbon-and two quite separate resonances.
It is hard to see why these nuclei should work together so smoothly…Other
nuclear reactions do not proceed by such a remarkable chain of lucky
breaks…It is like discovering deep and complex resonances between a
car, a bicycle, and a truck. Why should such disparate structures mesh
together so perfectly? Upon this our existence, and that of every life
form in the universe, depends.36
In the years that followed it was discovered that
other elements like oxygen are also formed as a result of such amazing
resonances. A zealous materialist, Fred Hoyle's discovery of these "extraordinary
transactions" forced him to admit in his book Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars,
that such double resonances had to be the result of design and not coincidence.
37 In another article
If you wanted to produce carbon and
oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these
are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have
to be just about where these levels are actually found to be…A commonsense
interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed
with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no
blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates
from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion
almost beyond question.38
Hoyle declared that the inescapable conclusion of this plain truth
should not go unnoticed by other scientists.
I do not believe that any scientist
who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the
laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard
to the consequences they produce inside the stars.39
This plain truth was expressed in the Qur'an 1,400
years ago. Allah indicates the harmony in creation of the heavens in
the verse: Do you not see how Allah created seven heavens in harmony…
(Surah Nuh: 15)
A Lesser Alchemy Lab: The Sun
The sun is a giant nuclear reactor that constantly
transforms atoms of hydrogen into helium and produces heat in the
process. What is crucial to this process however is the incredible
precision with which these reactions are balanced within the sun.
The slightest change in any of the forces governing these reactions
would result in their failure or in a catastrophic runaway explosion.
The conversion of helium into carbon described above is the alchemy
of red giants. In smaller stars like our sun, a simpler sort of alchemy
takes place. The sun converts hydrogen into helium and this reaction
is the source of its energy.
This reaction is no less essential for us to exist than are the reactions
in the red giants. Moreover, the sun's nuclear reaction is also a designed
process, just like the one in red giants.
Hydrogen, the input element for this reaction, is the simplest element
in the universe for its nucleus consists of a single proton. In a helium
nucleus, there are two protons and two neutrons. The process taking
place in the sun is the fusion of four hydrogen atoms into one helium
An enormous amount of energy is released during this process. Nearly
all the thermal and light energy reaching Earth is the result of this
solar nuclear reaction.
Single-proton hydrogen nuclei
Helium nucleus with two protons and two nueutrons
THE CRITICAL REACTION IN THE SUN
1) Above: Four hydrogen atoms in the sun
join together to form a single helium atom.
2) Below1: This is a two-step process.
First two hydrogen atoms fuse forming a deuteron. This transformation
is a slow one and is what keeps the sun burning constantly.
3) Below2: If the strong nuclear force
were just a little bit stronger, a di-proton would be formed instead
of a deuteron. Such a reaction however cannot be sustained for any length
of time: a runaway catastrophic explosion would occur in just a few
Single-proton hydrogen nuclei
Deutron nucleus with one proton and one neutron
Single-proton hydrogen nuclei
Di-proton nucleus with two proton
Like the reactions taking place in red giants, this solar nuclear reaction
turns out to involve a number of unexpected aspects without which it
could not take place. You can't simply jam four hydrogen atoms together
and turn them into helium. To make this happen, a two-step process is
required, paralleling the one taking place in red giants. In the first
step, two hydrogen atoms combine to form an intermediary nucleus called
deuteron consisting of one proton and one neutron.
What force could be great enough to produce a deuteron by jamming two
nuclei together? This force is the "strong nuclear force", one of the
four fundamental forces of the universe mentioned in the previous section.
This is the most powerful physical force in the universe and is billions
of billions of billions of billions times stronger than the gravitational
force. Nothing but this force could unite two nuclei like this.
Now the really curious thing about all this is that
research shows that, strong as it is, the strong nuclear force is just
barely strong enough to do what it does. If it were even slightly weaker
than it is, it would not be able to unite the two nuclei. Instead, two
protons nearing each other would repel each other immediately and the
reaction in the sun fizzle out before it ever began. In other words,
the sun would not exist as an energy-radiating star. Concerning this,
George Greenstein says: "Had the strong force had been only slightly
less strong, the light of the world would have never been lit."40
What, on the other hand, if the strong nuclear force were stronger?
To answer that, we first have to look at the process of converting two
hydrogen atoms into a deuteron in a little more detail. First, one of
the protons is stripped of its electrical charge and becomes a neutron.
This neutron forms a deuteron by uniting with a proton. The force causing
this unification is the "strong nuclear force"; the force that converts
a proton into a neutron on the other hand is a different one and is
called the "weak nuclear force". It is weak only by comparison however
and it takes about ten minutes to make the conversion. At the atomic
level, this is an immensely long time and it has the effect of slowing
down the rate at which the reaction in the sun takes place.
Let us now return to our question: What would happen if the strong
nuclear force were stronger? The answer is that the reaction in the
sun would be changed dramatically because the weak nuclear force would
be eliminated from the reaction.
If the strong nuclear force were any stronger than it is, it would
be able to fuse two protons to one another immediately and without having
to wait ten minutes for a proton to be converted into a neutron. As
a result of this reaction, there would be one nucleus with two protons
instead of a deuteron. Scientists call such a nucleus a "di-proton".
It is a theoretical particle however insofar as it has never been observed
to occur naturally. But if the strong nuclear force were much stronger
than it is, then there would be real di-protons in the sun. So what?
Well by getting rid of the proton-to-neutron conversion, we would be
eliminating the "throttle" that keeps the sun's "engine" running as
slowly as it does. George Greenstein explains what the result of that
The Sun would change because the first
stage in the formation of helium would no longer be the formation of
the deuteron. It would be the formation of the di-proton. And this reaction
would not involve the transformation of a proton into a neutron at all.
The role of the weak force would be eliminated, and only the strong
force would be involved…and as a result the Sun's fuel would suddenly
become very good indeed. It would become so powerful, so ferociously
reactive, that the Sun and every other star like it would instantaneously
The explosion of the sun would cause the world and everything on it
to burst into flames, burning our blue planet to a crisp in a few seconds.
Because the strong nuclear force is precisely fine-tuned to be neither
too strong nor too weak, the sun's nuclear reaction is slowed down and
the star has been able to radiate light and energy for billions of years.
This precise tuning is what makes it possible for mankind to live. If
there were even the slightest deviation in this arrangement, the stars
(including our sun) would not exist or if they did, they would explode
in a short time.
In other words the structure of the sun is neither accidental nor unintentional.
Quite the contrary: Allah has created the sun for people to live, as
expressed in the verse:
The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed.
(Surat ar-Rahman: 5)
Protons and Electrons
So far we have been examining matters concerned with forces that affect
atomic nuclei. There is another important equilibrium in the atom that
we must consider: the balance between its nucleus and electrons.
Both the mass and the volume of a proton are incomparably larger
than those of an electron but, strangely enough, these two particles
have equal (though opposite) electrical charges. Because of this
fact, atoms are electrically neutral.
Put in its simplest terms, electrons revolve around the nucleus. The
reason for this is electrical charge. Electrons have a negative charge
and protons have a positive charge. Opposite charges attract, so an
atom's electrons are drawn towards the nucleus. But the electrons are
also moving at an enormous speed which would, under normal conditions,
cause them to shoot away from the nucleus. These two forces (attraction
and motion away) are balanced so that the electrons move in orbits around
Atoms are also balanced in terms of their electric charges: the number
of orbiting electrons is the same as the number of protons in the nucleus.
(For example, oxygen has eight protons and eight electrons.) In this
way the electrical force of an atom is balanced and the atom is electrically
So far, so much basic chemistry. However there is a point in this seemingly
simple structure that is overlooked by many. A proton is much bigger
than an electron in terms of both size and weight. If an electron were
the size of a walnut, a proton would be about the size of a man. Physically,
they are quite dissimilar.
But their electrical charges are the same size!
Although their electrical charges are opposite (electrons negative,
protons positive) they are also equal. There is no obvious reason why
this should be so. Conceivably (and "logically") an electron ought to
carry a much smaller charge because it is so much smaller.
But if that were true, then what would happen?
What would happen is that every atom in the universe would be positively
charged instead of being electrically neutral. And because like charges
repel, every atom in the universe would try and repel every other atom.
Matter as we know it could not exist.
What would happen if it suddenly became true now? What would happen
if every atom were to start repelling every other?
Quite extraordinary things would happen. Let us begin with the changes
that would occur in your body. The moment this change occurred, your
hands and your arms holding this book would shatter at once. And not
just your hands and arms but also your body, your legs, your eyes, your
teeth-every part of your body would explode in a split second.
The room you sit in and the world around you would explode in a moment.
All the seas, mountains, the planets in the solar system, and all the
stars and galaxies in the universe would shatter into atomic dust. And
there would never again be anything in the universe to observe. The
universe would become a mass of disorganized atoms pushing each other
By how much would the sizes of the electrical charges of protons and
electrons have to differ in order for this dreadful thing to happen?
One percent? A tenth of one percent? George Greenstein addresses this
question in The Symbiotic Universe:
Small things like stones, people,
and the like would fly apart if the two charges differed by as little
as one part in 100 billion. Larger structures like the Earth and the
Sun require for their existence a yet more perfect balance of one part
in a billion billion.42
Here is yet another precisely-tuned equilibrium that
proves that the universe is intentionally designed and created for a
particular purpose. As John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler maintain in
their book "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle", "there is a grand
design in the Universe that favours the development of intelligent life."43
Of course every design proves the existence of a conscious
"designer". That is Allah alone, "Lord of all the worlds", described
in the Qur'an as the only Power Who created the universe from nothingness,
and designed and fashioned it as He willed. As stated in the Qur'an,
"He built the heaven, He raised its vault high and made it level." (Surat
Thanks to the extraordinary balances that we have seen in this chapter,
matter is able to remain stable and this stability is evidence of the
perfection of Allah's creation as revealed in the Qur'an:
Among His Signs is that heaven and earth hold firm
by His command. (Surat ar-Rum: 25)