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  • Constantina Alexander

The quantum nature of life and the soul, maybe.

Bohr's model of energy states of electron

I so love walking, surrounded by the natural world. Nature gives me hints of the divine, if I care to stop, look and see. Yet a walk in nature does not have to be restricted to the external. Looking inward is a complete adventure on another dimension. The busy little atom itself is well worthy of some exploration.

Chemistry first revealed to me the awesomeness of the atom. It took a while. Chemistry at school was a lesson in endurance as the chemistry mistress, Miss Angryperson (not her real name, obviously) frequently called us stupid idiots - those were the days. Seeing as we were very bright children this was a great puzzle and any subsequent mention of chemistry would turn me into a quivering emotional blob. I majored in biological sciences in my first degree but had to endure the dreaded chemistry again also and it was studied in a fog of fear. And lo, when I first got a job in a lab it was all analytical chemistry. I couldn't even read the first line of the first scientific paper on a study of drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics cheerfully shoved under my nose on my first day. However, I began to unravel some mysteries and did enjoy working in a lab.

But it was not until I got into lecturing - went for a biology lecturer's post and hey, it turned out they really needed a chemistry lecturer but the staff were angling to get a part time biologist a secure position. Sadly I got the job and the staff resented my appointment for years. However, the first morning of term, when I walked into my very own chemistry lab I felt great excitement. I was not going to emulate Miss Angryperson and decided I would work alongside a bunch of extrememly disenfranchised students who had just scraped through four GCSE's to get a place on an A level course. They were tough kids but I loved every minute of it and we learned how chemistry really worked. I had worked over the summer before commencing my post trying to pin down underlying principles and figuring out how to explain them clearly so they made sense. The chemistry angel finally arrived and helped me out big time. The scales were removed from my eyes and I saw the atom and all its beauty for the first time. The legacy of fear was finally snuffed out, hurrah.

The Ladder of St John of Climacus

At present I am nearing the end of my first year studying for a second degree, this time with a focus on maths and physics. I am fascinated by light: its wave/particle duality and the quantum nature of electrons. Photons, little packets of light for instance, are emitted when electrons fall back from higher energy states to lower energy states. They can only occupy discrete levels so they pop from one level to another and can go up or down in energy. The photons are the transmutation of that released energy into another form, as energy is always conserved.

Recently contemplating this skipping up and down of electrons and picturing the energy level diagram above I thought, electrons are a bit like people and the mystical journey of the soul. The lowest energy level is the ground state. It takes a very large input of energy to get electrons excited enough to jump to the next energy level, and they can quite simply drop back down again if there is no more energy applied. The subsequent levels have shorter distances between them, requiring less energy to transform them to higher states until finally, with the requisite shot of oomph they can reach the continuum and escape the atom completely. This is what happens when an atom, say of sodium, loses its outer shell electron - it becomes a positively charged sodium ion and the electron can go on its own adventure.

So how is this like people? How could electrons illustrate the journey of the soul? I may have a vivid imagination but I do feel a huge connectedness within all matter and manner of things and perhaps, when I allow this energy to flow, do not block it, then I can transport myself to another quantum soul level. Once there it is easier to go to the next and so on. Of course, one can fall down from any level, but this is part of the journey and sometimes a fall can precede a big jump back up. As an iconographer I am reminded of The Ladder of St John of Climacus pictured above. Jesus exhorts us to go up each rung, like the quantum levels, but at any stage we can drop off into the maw of some dark beastie down below. However, I do not think this is the end. I feel there is a cycle of excitations that get ever more vigorous before we finally have enough spitritual mojo to spring off into and beyond the continuum.

Jump to a new quantum level today.