A big, beautiful diamond. Sure, it catches light like no other gem, and it's the hardest material on Earth, and it's worth an awful lot of money. But what is it really but a collection of ordinary carbon atoms—the same kind of atom that makes up 18 percent of your body and is an essential ingredient of all living things?
This Hot Science is divided into two sections. The first is an activity that lets you build a carbon atom out of quarks and electrons. The second allows you manipulate a diamond crystal, giving you a three-dimensional look into how its carbon atoms are arranged.
The goal of this activity is to construct a carbon atom. You'll start with a hydrogen atom, which contains one proton and one electron. To build other atoms, just add protons, neutrons, and electrons. By the way, you'll need to create each proton and neutron from scratch, using two types of quarks—up quarks and down quarks. Some friendly advice: Try to keep the atom's overall electrical charge balanced. You'll never complete your atom if you don't.
Why is diamond so hard? One reason is that the chemical bond between each carbon atom that makes up a diamond is extremely strong. Another is that the atoms form a rigid structure—each atom is connected to four others, forming a very regular network.
The following link leads to a 3-D representation of a diamond that you can manipulate. You can also view two other arrangements of carbon atoms: graphite and buckyballs. To view these 3-D files, you'll need a special plugin called Chime.
The Atom Builder portion of this Hot Science—the activity and its related text—first appeared in the You Try It section of the A Science Odyssey Web site. Go to You Try It to
access other interactive features including Probe the Brain, DNA Workshop, Human Evolution, and
Technology at Home.
Molecule models courtesy of Paul Lahti, University of Massachusetts.