July 12, 2020

Round table with 4 legs
Hydrogen atom

A table with one leg

In the course on atoms (The best way to calm atoms), I discussed that the lone electron of the hydrogen atom creates a "solid" spherical orbital around the nucleus.

Does the hydrogen atom nucleus “feel” the equivalent of a cocoon of electrons darting around through the motion of 1 electron?

Here’s an analogy: take a 4 legged table, with one leg at each corner of the table. If we removed 1 leg , the table would be slightly unbalanced. If we removed 2, the table may be able to balance if the remaining legs were diagonally across from each other and the weight of the table were perfectly matched. If we removed 3 legs, the table would topple over. 

Now suppose that remaining leg could rapidly move from its position to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions. At any split instant, only one of the positions has a leg. How fast does that leg have to transpose itself from one position  to the next for the table not to topple over?

We could imagine that if the leg changed its position in space at a relatively slow speed of 100 transpositions/second, the table would remain standing. 

It may look a little wiggly as it tilts every so slightly in one direction - when the leg disappears from that corner - then tilts to another, as the leg comes back to its first position.

Creating a 3-dimensional reality

What do we see as we look towards that table with its one leg zooming from position to position?

We see a blurred square prism (a "cuboid") holding up the table. The prism is a composite of all the movements that the one leg has gone through. This prism - even though it is functionally made up of one leg - has enough substance as if there were a multitude of wooden legs. Even though the leg is continuously readjusting itself, the table has a stable position in space. 

The one-legged prism is a solid structure. Attempting to throw a ball through the "legs" would fail. The fast moving leg would block the ball from going through (unless the speed of the ball is faster than the speed at which the legs are changing positions). 

Similarly, 1 electron can create a forest of electrons surrounding the nucleus.

This is the dual reality of electrons: They can create stable, "solid" structures; but they are in continuous motion. 

Stability with motion:

Wall of death motorcycle

We see stability of objects in space versus time in  many scenarios: 

  • twirling a bucket of water around in a fast vertical circle; the water does not spill out.
  • A motorcyclist racing along the wall of death (a vertical cylinder)
  • a  bicyclist staying upright when riding a bicycle (of note, bicycles will stay upright for a distance even when there is no rider, as long as the bicycle is given a strong push to get it going.

All these instances - water, motorcyclists, and bicyclists -  are maintaining stability because of continuous motion well as regular adjustments of elements in the system. 


An electron is moving so astonishingly fast, that it creates layer upon layer of electrons between us and the nucleus. There is a dual reality for electrons: they create "solid" orbital structures while at the same time fluidly adjusting their position in space relative to other electrons, the nucleus, and the surrounding environment.

For electrons in s-orbitals, they create the reality of spherical s-orbitals around the nucleus.

Picture credits: 

  1. By Khusnul Faizin. Royalty-free stock vector images ID: 1313382593. Round table with four legs. 
  2. By BlueRingMedia. Shutterstock.com vector images ID: 152409845. Illustration of the element Hydrogen.
  3. Paul. Woman Rides Wall Of Death. Motorcycle girl rides wall of death. Flickr photo-sharing, Uploaded July 5, 2011.

About the author 

Juman Hijab

Juman has been in clinical practice as a physician for more than three decades. Her lifelong interest has been in the chemistry of life.

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