I understand the question is popular, but I fail to understand why it is on topic. Is there any notable claim atoms DO NOT exist?

Do atoms exist?

The questions seems suitable for physics, but not for skeptics.

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    This question was closed by the community. On what grounds was it reopened? Feb 4, 2012 at 20:08
  • I would say, let us not get involved in the voting or editing war now. Let us try if we can find some agreement or a common ground, I think this question can serve as a useful example to decide if we want such questions or not.
    – Suma
    Feb 4, 2012 at 20:10
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    Suma, sure, but that is a separate issue. I'm concerned about why the moderators ignored a decision made by the community. I asked a question to that effect although the question itself was closed. Feb 4, 2012 at 20:13
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    @Sklivvz The community closed the question even after the edits were made which means the question was still not considered suitable. No changes were made between closure and reopening. The decision to reopen without further discussion or editing of the question shows a disregard for the community decision. Feb 4, 2012 at 20:23
  • @Sklivvz yes, it's why I didn't consider my question discussing that a duplicate. Feb 5, 2012 at 14:12

9 Answers 9


The way the notability test works, presently, is that the belief has to be notable.

Since quite a lot of people believe atoms are real, the question is currently within the scope of our site. If you see a problem with allow such questions, feel free to write an answer to this question explaining how and why you see allowing such questions as problematic.

  • See also meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1125/… - will we allow questions like "Does sun raise on east?" "Is Eath rotating?" etc..
    – Suma
    Feb 3, 2012 at 17:07
  • @Suma: I know. My point is that, at the present time, there is no policy for such questions. We probably need one, otherwise we might get swarmed by uninteresting question, but none exists at the moment.
    – Borror0
    Feb 3, 2012 at 17:13
  • What can be done to change the policy as suggested in meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1126/79?
    – Suma
    Feb 3, 2012 at 17:19
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    Agreed, in addition, I think is is the absolute perfect question for this site. "Everything in the universe is made of atoms" is a perfectly notable claim.
    – Sam I Am
    Feb 4, 2012 at 0:30
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    @Suma: ask a general policy question, and let's discuss :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 4, 2012 at 20:21
  • @Sklivvz What I would write would be more or less a duplicate of your meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1126/79 - I have already upvoted a long time ago, I would hate to duplicate that. I do not know what more to say to discuss. :-(
    – Suma
    Feb 6, 2012 at 19:46

Notable, but easy.

This question is really quite notable: everybody knows a bit about atomic theory, but a lot of people don't know whether the model it's just as hoc or real. The problem—may be—related to the fact that until 1990 it was not ever possible to experimentally "see" single atoms.

On the other hand the question is certainly easy to answer and a wikipedia search will tell you all that you need to know.

There is no clear requirement on SE sites for questions to be challenging enough. Some sites do tend to focus on research-level questions and some others accept more laymen topics. While we should probably be discussing this in a separate question, this particular question is no easier than a million other on this site.

In conclusion:

  • keep this open because it's on-topic and notable
  • if we have an issue because it's easy, let's discuss it first

The doubters

The deniers

  • Let me repeat your own question from a comment 'So you would make questions like "is it true that the sun always rises from east?" acceptable?' to meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1126/79 - would you?
    – Suma
    Feb 4, 2012 at 19:59
  • @Suma: No, but that's a question on definitions not on physics.
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 4, 2012 at 20:02
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    The question is essentially "Atoms don't exist, what evidence is there that they do". There is no evidence for that claim being put forward. A facebook group with 0 members, a yahoo answers question and various philosophy sites that don't explicitly talk about atoms. There is no notability for the question. Feb 4, 2012 at 21:11

I suggest the question to be changed one more time, to match the original question more closely, with wording something like:

"Are atoms a theoretical model only, which cannot be seen or taken picture of?"

I would still argue the dichotomy is false and misleading, but at least the question would be about something non-obvious.

If we would keep the question even more closer to the original, which included a part "Can you show me a real picture of Atoms, not 3D visualization of particles or illustrated models?", than the misleading nature of it would become obvious, as even the pictures like from HRTEM and similar instruments should probably be considered visualizations, as they are not result of capturing photons interacting with atoms only.

  • Can I suggest "Has a picture ever been taken of atoms, have they ever been directly measured, or are they a mere theoretical model that can't be verified directly?"
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 4, 2012 at 20:24
  • Well, I am not sure about "measured", as measuring a "mere model" seems possible to me, that does not imply "real existence" (if such thing exists), but it would be better than what we have now.
    – Suma
    Feb 5, 2012 at 4:36
  • I've done an edit in this direction. Hopefully this solves.
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 5, 2012 at 9:53

I think most of the confusion here derive from the fact that the street man thinks of an atom as this:


I don't know if that was clear from my answer, but I was trying to point out the fact that atoms are there, but NOT made like that. Essentially all of the images I showed in the answer rely on the fact that there is an "electron cloud around a nucleus". The schematic above is just a model that we need to use because we cannot take a picture of an atom the same way we take a picture of a tree.

Personally, I interpreted the original question as: "is there a proof that matter is composed of minute particles?". The OP was asking for a picture because, well, that is an easy way to say something exists.

The photos I showed prove that atoms are there. Our current atom model, which is slightly better (?) represented by this


works well with our current scientific knowledge. In no way it is the "real deal". Just like any other scientific model, atomic models have been, and will be, ameliorated over time. That is not to say that they are wrong, just that there are better models to describe this phenomenon.

As for the notability of the claim:

The OP originally wrote:

{note: I read -faq- 3 times, but still have problem to understand what type of question exactly allowed here, but I can't ask this question at physics-SE since I'm skeptic about physics itself. Also compared to questions like "Do ghosts exist?", I guess this one is valid.}

To which I replied with a (now deleted) comment that was on the line of: "the difference is that many people think ghosts exists, but that is not true about not believing in atoms". Comment to which the OP agreed.

I think, however, that as many users seem to be OK with the question it should stay open.

  • Sklivvz said "basically all our questions are skeptical of well established facts", so notability should be very rare here since they are well established facts, isn't?
    – nima
    Feb 5, 2012 at 10:26
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    @nima: generally if a fact is well estabilished then it is notable, as there have been extensive studies on it. The inverse is not true (for a fact to be notable it is not necessarily true that scientific studies have been made on it). Example: "many people believe that honey is good when you have a cold. Is that true?". Claim is notable (most people believe in that). Not much different from: "Scientists say matter is made of atoms, but I never saw an atom myself. Is there any proof that this is true?". It is a notable and widespread (and studied) claim that matters is made of atoms.
    – nico
    Feb 5, 2012 at 10:36

The philosophical point is what I tried to address in my answer.

However, the question, in its core, is probably not answerable the way it was stated. Mentioning a proper framework (physics vs. quotidian vs. philosophy vs. lingusistic) would give terms such as "atom" and "exist" a proper meaning and would make the question answerable.

So, if we vote to close the question or put it on hold, I won't object.

  • Your answer relied on a philosophical discussion of what the word "exist" might mean, without any attempt to actually provide empirical evidence. It could have been used to answer/evade answering any question about whether something exists. Perhaps a better approach would be to define "exists" in a reasonable/meaningful way, and then show - with evidence - that atoms meet or don't meet that definition.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Oct 26, 2017 at 2:16
  • @Oddthinking The OP seems not to be aware that "exist" may have different meanings. If the OP asked about the meaning of "exist", I would have elaborated as you suggest. But, the way the OP stands, it is not my intention to expound on "exist". My intention is only to make the first step in making the author of the OP aware of the fact that "exist" needs a proper definition in some framework.
    – user42495
    Oct 26, 2017 at 11:12

Primarily, and admittedly with some hindsight, because an excellent answer is not only possible but was given.


I have two concerns with the question, which both tell me the question should be closed:

Question is not answerable

The question is of a philosophical nature. Asking "Do atoms exist" is not much different from "Does soul exist?" It depends on how you define atom and how you define existence. In this particular case, there is even a request for "direct prove" ("show me a picture"), assuming indirect proves are less valuable.

Missing notable counter-claim

Is there any notable claim atoms DO NOT exist? While the notability of a counter claim is not express in the site rules yet, such policy was already enforced before. See e.g. meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1233/79 "Do you doubt this claim? Is anyone making the opposite claim? If not, it is out-of-scope."

  • Do you mind if I take what you wrote in this answer and rescope your question to be abut counter-claims? I think it's a valid debate to have, but your current question is slightly too narrow.
    – Borror0
    Feb 3, 2012 at 18:40
  • Feel free to, or the discussion can be continued in the meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/1126/79, where the issue was raised before.
    – Suma
    Feb 4, 2012 at 4:39
  • I would estimate that 80% to 90% of the world population could not give proof that atoms exist... maybe there is no counter-claim, but I wouldn't be so shocked by someone doubting it. As for the "show me a picture" part I think that comes more from the fact that most people are not familiar with quantum physics (and the impossibility of "taking a picture of the atom") rather than the assumption that indirect proofs are less valuable. Especially because all of the indirect proofs I showed in my answer did not seem to disturb anyone...
    – nico
    Feb 5, 2012 at 10:42

As Suma points out, there is no evidence of a counter-claim.

This question should not be acceptable. It's worse that it is perhaps considered acceptable because of the popularity of the question.

A quick Google search would have turned up similar results as in the answer.

The question might be acceptable if the question were edited to show claims that atoms exist or notable claims of people not accepting that atoms exist. Even if those issues were fixed, the questions should probably be migrated to physics.

Should it be acceptable to ask similar questions, such as "Do other planets really exist?" when the scientific consensus is that they do and there is no evidence of a counter-claim?

Can we have questions that are skeptical of a unanimous scientific consensus, when for such questions only answers that support that consensus will be acceptable?

Also, a quality answer should not be justification for a low quality question.

  • In response to this, I've added Sklivvz's list of counter-claims to the question. I acknowledge that Suma objects to (most of?) them. See separate comments.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Feb 4, 2012 at 8:51
  • @Oddthinking Sklivvz the list of claims is not sufficient IMO. It's hardly a widespread belief and questions on yahoo answers or the like shouldn't be enough for notability. Feb 4, 2012 at 13:45
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    The bigger problem I have is questioning something that is unanimously accepted by the scientific community, since an answer reflecting that consensus is the only answer acceptable. Without a clear notable counter-claim the question should be closed. Feb 4, 2012 at 13:46
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    You are bringing up an interesting issue that may have to be separated into another meta-question. The notable claim here is that atoms DO exist. There is no doubt that is notable. We don't normally ask for notability in the opposite direction, assuming the OP themselves is taking that opposite view. (If they are not, then yes, notability in the opposite direction has been requested before.) However, this position of accepting assymetric notability (notable people on one-side, the OP alone on the other) may be open to discussion.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Feb 4, 2012 at 13:54

I'm giving another answer, this time I'm simply going to quote passage from the Skeptics FAQ that do not apply to the question and should be reason enough for its closure.

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.


Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.


Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and most of all it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!


Skeptics - Stack Exchange is for challenging unreferenced notable claims, pseudoscience and biased results. Skeptics is about applying skepticism — it is for researching the evidence behind claims you encounter. It is not for speculation, philosophical discussions or investigating original claims.


Now, that doesn't mean every single claim has to be backed by a New York Times article making it. You could probably even let "It's commonly said..." claims slide, if the claim is actually common knowledge. But if there's any doubt - if one person shows up and disputes the claim (leaves a comment, or flags for moderator attention) - then it's the responsibility of the asker (or your friendly neighborhood editor) to dig up a real, verifiable source. After all, if it's actually common knowledge, then there should be some reference to it out there...

  • No vote on this. I agree that quote 1 and 3 apply, I disagree that 2 and 5 and do, and I am unable to decide on 4.
    – Suma
    Feb 6, 2012 at 19:40
  • @Suma for point 5 keep in mind that the claim we need evidence of notability for is "atoms do not exist", not that atoms exist, which is of course notable. For point 4 I don't think challenging the scientific consensus is acceptable on this site. It just doesn't make sense. I think point 2 is too vague to be useful, but see for example this book on the atom Feb 6, 2012 at 21:15
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    Anyway, if the question was afoul of even 1 and certainly more than 1 then the question is a problem and should be closed. It seems to be a special exception because of its popularity and nothing more. Feb 6, 2012 at 21:17

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