This story is about 4 minutes long.

Atoms are really, really small.

They have a diameter of 0.1 nanometers, but that gives no real context of how small they really are.

I’ve come up with two quick stories to help us visualise the minuscule world of the atoms.

They start with the world’s most classic road trip, the coast to coast drive across the USA.

It’s the trip made famous by the novelist Jack Kerouac and his Beat Generation of the late 1940’s. Countless travellers have followed in his footsteps since by hitchhiking or renting an old car and driving the four to five-day journey across the great American continent.

Kerouac’s sketch from one of his notebooks

All experiences are different, but something that everyone who completes this journey comes away with is a perspective of the prodigious size of the USA.

Jack Kerouac writes in his novel about the experience:

All that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.

Jack KerouacOn The Road

Imagine that somewhere at the end of this journey, perhaps when driving across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a loose quarter fell from the car and clattered onto the road, unnoticed.

Can you see the quarter?

Try to imagine the size of the quarter on the ground, compared to the vast country Kerouac just traveled across.

It seems incomparably small, so microscopic – that it almost doesn’t exist.

But this is where the penny drops.

Imagine you could stretch a quarter out, keeping all of its proportions, until it was the size of the United States, from border to border and coast to coast.

If you could somehow do this, then the atoms inside the big quarter would be approximately the same size as Kerouac’s original quarter on the ground.

Said another way, between the size of an atom and the size of the USA, a quarter lies exactly in the middle.

Now let’s jump perspectives.

Twenty years later, another great journey is taking place.

This time it’s Buzz Aldrin, and he’s on his way to the moon. He looks out the window of Apollo 11 and down at the blue Earth below.

He can see the whole United States at once, the entire continent that took Kerouac five days to drive across.

The USA as seen from space

Let’s imagine he knows the quarter story, and wants to visualise it for himself.

Kerouac’s tiny quarter on the road would be far, far too small to see. At this distance, he could make out large structures like lakes and mountain ranges, and the lights of cities, but not much more.

When the clouds parted, he could just make out the San Francisco Bay Area, the darkness of its bay distinguished from the lights of its shore and its distinctive Peninsula and Marin County forming a recognisable shape.

San Francisco from space. Image credit: NASA

He couldn’t actually see it at this distance, but he imagined the thin line of the Golden Gate Bridge connecting the peninsulas.

He imagined Kerouac’s quarter lying on the bridge all the way down below. He certainly couldn’t see it but in his minds eye, it was there.

Buzz took out a quarter of his own and held it up against the United States, with the Bay Area and the Golden Gate Bridge just jutting out on the underside edge.

In his minds eye the quarter was certainly tiny. But it wasn’t non-existent.

He imagined the atoms on the edge of his quarter jittering and dancing right next to where he imagined Kerouac’s quarter to be.

That is how big an atom is.

An atom is the same size to a quarter as a quarter is to the USA.

These minuscule particles are small, but are not smaller than we can imagine.

The properties of these tiny atoms, like their attraction to each other, determine very real and tangible effects in our world, such as if a material is as brittle as charcoal or as hard as a diamond.

The light waves that they reflect determine what colour something is, and their sharing of electrons creates the electricity and magnetism that powers our civilisation.

In fact, every phenomena in our middle-sized world, between the tiny atoms (and the even smaller worlds of quarks and strings), and the giant world of space and galaxies, is an ’emergent property’, an illusion, created by the interactions of trillions upon trillions of tiny atoms.

If you liked this article, there’s a chance you might also like our Apollo 11 flight jacket, modeled on the same jacket that Buzz Aldrin was given by NASA to wear in 1969. Check it out at our online store!

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Ben McCarthy

Ben McCarthy

Ben is the Founder of Discover Earth and the author of the Big Ideas Network.