Solving a 126-Dimensional Mystery

As Astrophysicist Neil Degrass Tyson once said, the universe has no obligation to make sense to humans. The chemists that just finally revealed the complex and multidimensional electronic structure of Benzene, can attest to this.

It took 200 years after Michael Faraday discovered the molecule for the world’s brightest minds to make some sense of something so small that its existence is sometimes forgotten.  Benzene’s atomic structure has been well understood by scientists for a while now: a ring consisting of six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms attached to each of the carbon atoms. What truly baffled the scientists was the discovery of benzene’s 42 electrons. 

Photo courtesy of EurekAlert

“The mathematical function that describes benzene’s electrons is 126-dimensional,” chemist Timothy Schmidt of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science and UNSW Sydney in Australia said.

That means the electrons exist in triplets, each with their own coordinate, or exact location. The 42 electrons multiplied by three leads to a 126 dimensional structure.

“The electrons are not independent, so we cannot break this down into 42 independent three-dimensional functions. The answer computed by a machine is not easy to interpret by a human, and we had to invent a way to get at the answer.” 

The reason electrons of the same element are able to exist in different dimensions is because of their immensely small size. Atoms have a radius of roughly one ten billionth of a meter, making them about 100 million times bigger than electrons. Electrons are so small that some theoretical physicists believe they exist in a different realm, the quantum realm. 

The quantum realm (or quantum parameter) in physics is not entirely the same place where ant man got stuck in in Avengers: Endgame. It’s actually the realm where subatomic particles exist on a scale, 100 nanometers, so small that the regular laws of physics don’t apply. An entire new theoretical branch of physics called quantum mechanics was made to define this uncharted part of physics. The nanometer scale is on such a macro level, that it generated some paradoxes such as in Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, where Schrödinger stated that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat, like a radioactive atom, in a box and sealed it, you would not know or be able to prove that the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was technically both “dead and alive”.

Michael Faraday
Photo courtesy of Britannica

Until the box is opened, an observer doesn’t know whether the cat is alive or dead, because the cat’s fate is intrinsically tied to whether or not the atom has decayed and the cat would, as Schrödinger put it, be “living and dead … in equal parts” until it is observed. 

The Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment proved that “really, really tiny things didn’t obey Newton’s Laws,” Eric Martell, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Millikin University said. “So the rules that we used to govern the motion of a ball or person or car couldn’t be used to explain how an electron or atom works.”

All this proves that  the universe truly doesn’t revolve around us humans. There could possibly be an entirely different universe in the air we breathe, and a completely new way to view the world we live in. What we see through our eyes right now isn’t the whole picture. 

Written by Roaa Alkhawaja

Co-Editor in Chief and Senior, Ro'aa Alkhawaja, loves herself a good week of reading, baking, tea-drinking, and eating more Nutella sandwiches than should be humanly possible.

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