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updated: 10/12/2010 11:50 AM

Kids ask: How do atoms form?

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  • Timeline of the universe

    Timeline of the universe
    courtesy of NASA/WMAP Science Team


You wanted to know: Students in Katherine Crawford's fifth-grade class at West Oak Middle School in Mundelein asked, "How do atoms form?

Atoms are the most basic part of everything, and everything is made of atoms. Atoms are the undividable parts that make up matter.

Most people are familiar with the chemical equation that describes water HO, which identifies its most basic building blocks two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom.

Simply put, atoms are the building blocks of everything around us. Break down an atom into its smallest parts and you'll find protons, neutrons and electrons.

So where do atoms come from?

"Most matter was formed right after the Big Bang. Therefore, the vast majority of small atoms hydrogen and some helium have been in existence for billions of years, said Andy Kidwell, assistant chemistry professor at Harper College in Palatine.

So when did the Big Bang begin the point in time most scientists follow as when our universe started to expand? Kidwell says the best estimate is it happened 13.7 billion years ago.

Ideas about the existence of atoms go way back to 600 B.C. in India. Scientists today can actually see atoms and see evidence of the existence of atoms using a scanning tunneling microscope.

Researching the very smallest particles in our universe and the way they can combine to form some of the largest objects, such as stars and the sun, are studies that involve astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists and engineers.

Kidwell suggests students think about atoms in the reverse what they would consist of if they were stripped down to their smallest parts?

"This is string theory, which then led to superstring theory and finally to M theory M stands for master or membrane, he said. "These theories try to unify the fundamental forces of the universe through very complex mathematics and they suggest that all particles, even the smallest particles that make up atoms, are made up of small vibrating strings. Therefore, we could say that all atoms are made up of these vibrating strings.

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