After all, the distance between the bits my coffee cup is made of and the distance between the bits the coffee table is made of is absolutely hugemoungous. If you were a person standing on one atom of my coffee cup, scaled so the atom was the size of, say a Sofa, and you looked out in the direction of the next atom, it would look like a distant star. Or something.

Perhaps there is some kind of force working, I dunno.

Anyway, this is the kind of question that arises when you look at this thing. Teachers, you can use this to freak out your students!


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2010

    Think of how many things there are to be discovered between the Plank distance and the Neutrino.

  2. #2 Navin
    September 24, 2010

    Hmmm, chart is missing the photon, which I suspect is smaller than the neutrino.

    And yeah, “some kind of force” is your answer. Maybe a force 10^39 times stronger than gravity?

  3. #3 Mr Ed
    September 24, 2010

    1) because it is the law:

    III. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    2) the force holding the subatomic bits together is the strong force. The force reacting on the cup is gravity.

  4. #4 Bodach
    September 24, 2010

    Yeehaw! I remember watching Powers of 10 in college in an altered state. Remember kids, don’t do drugs.

  5. #5 Navin
    September 24, 2010

    #3, I think it’s the electromagnetic force that’s responsible, not the Strong force. The electrons in the cup and table (all being negatively charged) are applying the forces keeping the cup from “slipping though” the table.

  6. #6 Todd
    September 24, 2010

    Anyway, this is the kind of question that arises when you look at this thing. Teachers, you can use this to freak out your students!

    Ha! I just covered this in my non-majors biology class. It’s always fun to break out my best Spicoli: “Whooa! Dooode! If the protons and electrons in the table are far apart and the protons and electrons in my hand are far apart, then I can put my hand right through the table! Far out!”

    Spicoli will make another appearance when we get to vision: “Doode, how do I know the color I see as blue is the same color you see as blue?”

    Fantastic link, thanks for posting. My only complaint is that they forgot to add the turtles before (or after, I guess) the strings & Planck length. Even so, that will be great for illustrating scale (which is hard to do when 99.9% of one’s students don’t know how long a meter is….

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    September 24, 2010

    Careful, you are about to bring up forces of nature that are non-intuitive (aka Jewish Physics), and therefore an invention by elitisty blokes who don’t go to Church.

    Quantum physics is OK for patriotic stuff like building bombs, but if you spread those ideas around you could harm the way young people think. Real, lasting knowledge is only found in the Book. (sarcasm)

  8. #8 feralboy12
    September 24, 2010

    I had a good answer for this, but the letters I typed all fell through the computer screen and got mixed up.

  9. #9 Todd
    September 24, 2010


    That’s ‘cuz God didn’t want you corrupting people’s minds with your Darwinistic Marxoid death-cult secular humanitarianistic propaganda. If He Whose Name Shall Remain Nameless wanted you to spread your vile, elitist so-called “science,” he would have made your computer screen impermeable to typed letters!

    Just sayin’.

    (I just realized that “@8:” looks like a googly-eyed dude wearing a turban. I just invented an emoticon!)

  10. #10 Dave v.
    September 24, 2010

    Cool animation. There’s at least one error, looks like a cut ‘n paste typo. Finding it could be assigned as an extra credit problem to make students really look at the values — maybe it’s intentional.

    And yeah, I sent Primax Studio a message…

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2010

    What is it?

  12. #12 Dave v.
    September 25, 2010

    Well that’s no fun…

    Look at the distance from Sun to Earth: the first parenthesized value appears copied from the Sun-Mercury distance of 60M km, while all the other listed values are variations of 150M km.

    I only spotted it because it’s one of the few distances in the chart I know offhand — although I think “8 light minutes” is a more thought provoking variation than any of those listed.

    It’s still there, I doubt anyone’ll even look at it ’til next week.

  13. #13 Tristram Brelstaff
    September 25, 2010

    The Pauli Exclusion Principle is the ultimate source of the solidity of matter. From the Wikipedia page on Freeman Dyson:

    A seminal work by Dyson came in 1966 when, together with Andrew Lenard and independently of Elliott H. Lieb and Walter Thirring, he proved rigorously that the exclusion principle plays the main role in the stability of bulk matter.[13] Hence, it is not the electromagnetic repulsion between electrons and nuclei that is responsible for two wood blocks that are left on top of each other not coalescing into a single piece, but rather it is the exclusion principle applied to electrons and protons that generates the classical macroscopic normal force. …

  14. #14 Sinan
    September 25, 2010

    Very good, this like page.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2010

    Tristram, I don’t buy that. The “normal force” is not one of the fundemental forces. Or at least, I don’t think it is. Mathematically the exclusion principle may work, but doesn’t that predate the current version of the standard model? Or, if not, how not?

  16. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    September 25, 2010

    One fine morning your coffee cup, like Wile E. Coyote, will make the mistake of looking down.

  17. #17 IBY
    September 26, 2010

    @Greg Laden
    Pauli exclusion principle states that two particles can’t be in the same quantum state, whether it is energy level, angular momentum, or spin. And yes, part of it has something to do with the electrostatic force, but it just turns out that the answer is more complicated than that because it has to take account of quantum mechanical interaction. It is only due to the exclusion principle that a white dwarf and neutron star doesn’t collapse into a black hole. So, in the quantum mechanical version of the normal force, it is not that some fundamental force does the pushing, a quantum mechanical interaction prevents two particles from being in the same quantum state. And yes, since the standard model is built on quantum mechanics, pauli’s exclusion principle still applies.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2010

    IBY: Yeah, but, saying it’s all quantumy is not a very satisfying answer, and the original question was now about how two things can’t be in the same place. The question is how come a tiny itty bitty thing can’t pass through the hugemongous vast expanse of nothingness between two other tiny itty bitty things.

  19. #19 IBY
    September 27, 2010

    Then I am so sorry. There is no explanation in existence that will satisfy you because the fundamental explanation for this has to do with wavefunctions, energy, and uncertainty principle. 🙁 In fact, without quantumy explanations, there is no way to explain a vast array of things in our universe, like magnets, neutron stars and white dwarfs, the rate of proton-proton fusion in our sun, etc. In a way, satisfying explanations don’t exist for many of these phenomena.