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Our world is made up of atoms, yet the atomic model of the universe is nonetheless considered a "theory." When scientists know beyond all reasonable doubt that a particular principle is the case, then it is dubbed a law. Laws address the fact that certain things happen, as well as how they happen. A theory, on the other hand, attempts to explain why things happen. By definition, an idea that is dubbed a theory has yet to be fully proven, and such is the case with the atomic theory of matter. After all, the atom cannot be seen, even with electron microscopesyet its behavior can be studied in terms of its effects. Atomic theory explains a great deal about the universe, including the relationship between chemical elements, and therefore (as with Darwin's theory concerning biological evolution), it is generally accepted as fact. The particulars of this theory, including the means by which it evolved over the centuries, are as dramatic as any detective story. Nonetheless, much still remains to be explained about the atomparticularly with regard to the smallest items it contains.


Why Study Atoms?

Many accounts of the atom begin with a history of the growth in scientists' understanding of its structure, but here we will take the opposite approach, first discussing the atom in terms of what physicists and chemists today understand. Only then will we examine the many challenges scientists faced in developing the current atomic model: false starts, wrong theories, right roads not taken, incomplete models. In addition, we will explore the many insights added along the way as, piece by piece, the evidence concerning atomic behavior began to accumulate.

People who are not scientifically trained tend to associate studies of the atom with physics, not chemistry. While it is true that physicists study atomic structure, and that much of what scientists know today about atoms comes from the work of physicists, atomic studies are even more integral to chemistry than to physics. At heart, chemistry is about the interaction of different atomic and molecular structures: their properties, their reactions, and the ways in which they bond.


Just as a writer in English works with the 26 letters of the alphabet, a chemist works with the 100-plus known elements, the fundamental and indivisible substances of all matter. And what differentiates the elements, ultimately, from one another is not their color or texture, or even the phase of mattersolid, gas, or liquidin which they are normally found. Rather, the defining characteristic of an element is the atom that forms its basic structure.

The number of protons in an atom is the critical factor in differentiating between elements, while the number of neutrons alongside the protons in the nucleus serves to distinguish one isotope from another. However, as important as elements and even isotopes are to the work of a chemist, the components of the atom's nucleus have little direct bearing on the atomic activity that brings about chemical reactions and chemical bonding. All the chemical "work" of an atom is done by particles vastly smaller in mass than either the protons or neutronsfast-moving little bundles of energy called electrons.

Moving rapidly through the space between the nucleus and the edge of the atom, electrons sometimes become dislodged, causing the atom to become a positively charged ion. Conversely, sometimes an atom takes on one or more electrons, thus acquiring a negative charge. Ions are critical to the formation of some kinds of chemical bonds, but the chemical role of the electron is not limited to ionic bonds.

In fact, what defines an atom's ability to bond with another atom, and therefore to form a molecule, is the specific configuration of its electrons. Furthermore, chemical reactions are the result of changes in the arrangement of electrons, not of any activity involving protons or neutrons. So important are electrons to the interactions studied in chemistry that a separate essay has been devoted to them.

What an Atom Is


The definitions of atoms and elements seems, at first glance, almost circular: an element is a substance made up of only one kind of atom, and an atom is the smallest particle of an element that retains all the chemical and physical properties of the element. In fact, these two definitions do not form a closed loop, as they would if it were stated that an element is something made up of atoms. Every item of matter that exists, except for the subatomic particles discussed in this essay, is made up of atoms. An element, on the other hand, isas stated in its definitionmade up of only one kind of atom. "Kind of atom" in this context refers to the number of protons in its nucleus.

Protons are one of three basic subatomic particles, the other two being electrons and neutrons. As we shall see, there appear to be particles even smaller than these, but before approaching these "sub-subatomic" particles, it is necessary to address the three most significant components of an atom. These are distinguished from one another in terms of electric charge: protons are positively charged, electrons are negative in charge, and neutrons have no electrical charge. As with the north and south poles of magnets, positive and negative charges attract one another, whereas like charges repel. Atoms have no net charge, meaning that the protons and electrons cancel out one another.


Scientists originally thought of an atom as a sort of closed sphere with a relatively hard shell, rather like a ball bearing. Nor did they initially understand that atoms themselves are divisible, consisting of the parts named above. Even as awareness of these three parts emerged in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, it was not at all clear how they fit together.

At one point, scientists believed that electrons floated in a cloud of positive charges. This was before the discovery of the nucleus, where the protons and neutrons reside at the heart of the atom. It then became clear that electrons were moving around the nucleus, but how? For a time, a planetary model seemed appropriate: in other words, electrons revolved around the nucleus much as planets orbit the Sun. Eventually, howeveras is often the case with scientific discoverythis model became unworkable, and had to be replaced by another.

The model of electron behavior accepted today depicts the electrons as forming a cloud around the nucleusalmost exactly the opposite of what physicists believed a century ago. The use of the term "cloud" may perhaps be a bit misleading, implying as it does something that simply hovers. In fact, the electron, under normal circumstances, is constantly moving. The paths of its movement around the nucleus are nothing like that of a planet's orbit, except inasmuch as both models describe a relatively small object moving around a relatively large one.

The furthest edges of the electron's movement define the outer perimeters of the atom. Rather than being a hard-shelled little nugget of matter, an atomto restate the metaphor mentioned aboveis a cloud of electrons surrounding a nucleus. Its perimeters are thus not sharply delineated, just as there is no distinct barrier between Earth's atmosphere and space itself. Just as the air gets thinner the higher one goes, so it is with an atom: the further a point is from the nucleus, the less the likelihood that an electron will pass that point on a given orbital path.



The term nucleon is used generically to describe the relatively heavy particles that make up an atomic nucleus. Just as "sport" can refer to football, basketball, or baseball, or any other item in a similar class, such as soccer or tennis, "nucleon" refers to protons and neutrons. The sum of protons and neutrons is sometimes called the nucleon number, although a more commonly used term is mass number.

Though the electron is the agent of chemical reactions and bonding, it is the number of protons in the nucleus that defines an atom as to its element. Atoms of the same element always have the same number of protons, and since this figure is unique for a given element, each element is assigned an atomic number equal to the number of protons in its nucleus. The atoms are listed in order of atomic number on the periodic table of elements.


A proton has a mass of 1.673 · 1024 g, which is very close to the established figure for measuring atomic mass, the atomic mass unit. At one time, the basic unit of atomic mass was equal to the mass of one hydrogen atom, but hydrogen is so reactivethat is, it tends to combine readily with other atoms to form a molecule, and hence a compoundthat it is difficult to isolate. Instead, the atomic mass unit is today defined as 1/12 of the mass of a carbon-12 atom. That figure is exactly 1.66053873 · 1024 grams.

The mention of carbon-12, a substance found in all living things, brings up the subject of isotopes. The "12" in carbon-12 refers to its mass number, or the sum of protons and neutrons. Two atoms may be of the same element, and thus have the same number of protons, yet differ in their number of neutronswhich means a difference both in mass number and atomic mass. Such differing atoms of the same element are called isotopes. Isotopes are often designated by symbols showing mass number to the upper left of the chemical symbol or element symbolfor instance, 12C for carbon-12.


Protons have a positive electric charge of 1, designated either as 1+ or +1. Neutrons, on the other hand, have no electric charge. It appears that the 1+ charge of a proton and the 0 charge of a neutron are the products of electric charges on the part of even smaller particles called quarks. A quark may either have a positive electric charge of less than 1+, in which case it is called an "up quark"; or a negative charge of less than 1, in which case it is called a "down quark."

Research indicates that a proton contains two up quarks, each with a charge of 2/3+, and one down quark with a charge of 1/3. This results in a net charge of 1+. On the other hand, a neutron is believed to hold one up quark with a charge of 2/3+, and two down quarks with charges of 1/3 each. Thus, in the neutron, the up and down quarks cancel out one another, and the net charge is zero.

A neutron has about the same mass as a proton, but other than its role in forming isotopes, the neutron's function is not exactly clear. Perhaps, it has been speculated, it binds protonswhich, due to their positive charges, tend to repel one anothertogether at the nucleus.


An electron is much smaller than a proton or neutron, and has much less mass; in fact, its mass is equal to 1/1836 that of a proton, and 1/1839 that of a neutron. Yet the area occupied by electronsthe region through which they moveconstitutes most of the atom's volume. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a BB (which, in fact, is billions of times larger than a nucleus), the furthest edge of the atom would be equivalent to the highest ring of seats around an indoor sports arena. Imagine the electrons as incredibly fast-moving insects buzzing constantly through the arena, passing by the BB but then flitting to the edges or points in between, and you have something approaching an image of the atom's interior.

How fast does an electron move? Speeds vary depending on a number of factors, but it can move nearly as fast as light: 186,000 mi (299,339 km) per second. On the other hand, for an item of matter near absolute zero in temperature, the velocity of the electron is much, much less. In any case, given the fact that an electron has enough negative charge to cancel out that of the proton, it must be highly energized. After all, this would be like an electric generator weighing 1 lb having as much power as a generator that weighed 1 ton.

According to what modern scientists know or hypothesize concerning the inner structure of the atom, electrons are not made up of quarks; rather, they are part of a class of particles called leptons. It appears that leptons, along with quarks and what are called exchange particles, constitute the elementary particles of atomsparticles on a much more fundamental level than that of the proton and neutron.

Electrons are perhaps the most intriguing parts of an atom. Their mass is tiny, even in atomic terms, yet they possess enough charge to counteract a "huge" proton. They are capable, in certain situations, of moving from one atom to another, thus creating ions, and depending on their highly complex configuration and ability to rearrange their configuration, they facilitate or prevent chemical reactions.


Ancient Greek Theories of Matter

The first of the Greek philosophers, and the first individual in Western history who deserves to be called a scientist, was Thales (c. 625-c. 547 b.c.) of Miletus. (Miletus is in Greek Asia Minor, now part of Turkey.) Among his many achievements were the correct prediction of a solar eclipse, and one of the first-ever observations of electricity, when he noted the electrification of amber by friction.

But perhaps the greatest of Thales's legacies was his statement that "Everything is water." This represented the first attempt to characterize the nature of all physical reality. It set off a debate concerning the fundamental nature of matter that consumed Greek philosophers for two centuries. Later, philosophers attempted to characterize matter in terms of fire or air. In time, however, there emerged a school of thought concerned not with identifying matter as one particular thing or another, but with recognizing a structural consistency in all of matter. Among these were the philosophers Leucippus (c. 480-c. 420 b.c.) and his student Democritus (c. 460-370 b.c.)


Leucippus and Democritus proposed a new and highly advanced model for the tiniest point of physical space. Democritus, who actually articulated these ideas (far less is known about Leucippus) began with a "thought experiment," imagining what would happen if an item of matter were subdivided down to its smallest piece. This tiniest fragment, representing an item of matter that could not be cut into smaller pieces, he called by a Greek term meaning "no cut": atomos.

Democritus was not necessarily describing matter in a concrete, scientific way: his "atoms" were idealized philosophical constructs rather than purely physical units. Yet, he came amazingly close, and indeed much closer than any thinker for the next 22 centuries, to identifying the fundamental structure of physical reality. Why did it take so long for scientists to come back around to the atomic model? The principal culprit, who advanced an erroneous theory of matter, also happened to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time: Aristotle (384-322 b.c..)


Aristotle made numerous contributions to science, including his studies in botany and zoology, as well as his explanation of the four causes, a significant attempt to explain events by means other than myth or superstition. In the area of the physical sciences, however, Aristotle's impact was less than beneficial. Most notably, in explaining why objects fall when dropped, he claimed that the ground was their "natural" destinationa fallacy later overturned with the gravitational model developed by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

The ideas Aristotle put forward concerning what he called "natural motion" were a product of his equally faulty theories with regard to what today's scientists refer to as chemistry. In ancient times, chemistry, as such, did not exist. Long before Aristotle's time, Egyptian embalmers and metallurgists used chemical processes, but they did so in a practical, applied manner, exerting little effort toward what could be described as scientific theory. Philosophers such as Aristotle, who were some of the first scientists, made little distinction between physical and chemical processes. Thus, whereas physics is understood today as an important background for chemistry, Aristotle's "physics" was actually an outgrowth of his "chemistry."

Rejecting Democritus's atomic model, Aristotle put forward his own view of matter. Like Democritus, he believed that matter was composed of very small components, but these he identified not as atoms, but as "elements": earth, air, fire, and water. He maintained that all objects consisted, in varying degrees, of one or more of these, and based his explanation of gravity on the relative weights of each element. Water sits on top of the earth, he explained, because it is lighter, yet air floats above the water because it is lighter stilland fire, lightest of all, rises highest. Furthermore, he claimed that the planets beyond Earth were made up of a "fifth element," or quintessence, of which little could be known.

In fairness to Aristotle, it should be pointed out that it was not his fault that science all but died out in the Western world during the period from about a.d. 200 to about 1200. Furthermore, he did offer an accurate definition of an element, in a general sense, as "one of those simple bodies into which other bodies can be decomposed, and which itself is not capable of being divided into others." As we shall see, the definition used today is not very different from Aristotle's. However, to define an element scientifically, as modern chemists do, it is necessary to refer to something Aristotle rejected: the atom. So great was his opposition to Democritus's atomic theory, and so enormous was Aristotle's influence on learning for more than 1,500 years following his death, that scientists only began to reconsider atomic theory in the late eighteenth century.

A Maturing Concept of Elements


One of the first steps toward an understanding of the chemical elements came with the work of English physicist and chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Building on the usable definition of an element provided by Aristotle, Boyle maintained no substance was an element if it could be broken down into other substances. Thus, air could be eliminated from the list of "elements," because, clearly, it could be separated into more than one elemental substance. (In fact, none of the four "elements" identified by Aristotle even remotely qualifies as an element in modern chemistry.)

Boyle, nonetheless, still clung to aspects of alchemy, a pseudo-science based on the transformation of "base metals," for example, the metamorphosis of iron into gold. Though true chemistry grew out of alchemy, the fundamental proposition of alchemy was faulty: if one metal can be turned into another, then that means that metals are not elements, which, in fact, they are. Nonetheless, Boyle's studies led to the identification of numerous elementsthat is, items that really are elementsin the years that followed.


A few years after Boyle came two French chemists who extended scientific understanding of the elements. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) affirmed the definition of an element as a simple substance that could not be broken down into a simpler substance, and noted that elements always react with one another in the same proportions.

Joseph-Louis Proust (1754-1826) put forward the law of constant composition, which holds that a given compound always contains the same proportions of mass between elements. Another chemist of the era had claimed that the composition of a compound varies in accordance with the reactants used to produce it. Proust's law of constant composition made it clear that any particular compound will always have the same composition.

Early Modern Understanding of the Atom


The work of Lavoisier and Proust influenced a critical figure in the development of the atomic model: English chemist John Dalton (1766-1844). In A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), Dalton put forward the idea that nature is composed of tiny particles, and in so doing he adopted Democritus's word "atom" to describe these basic units. This idea, which Dalton had formulated five years earlier, marked the starting-point of modern atomic theory.

Dalton recognized that the structure of atoms in a particular element or compound is uniform, but maintained that compounds are made up of compound atoms: in other words, water, for instance, is a compound of "water atoms." However, water is not an element, and thus, it was necessary to think of its atomic composition in a different wayin terms of molecules rather than atoms. Dalton's contemporary Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856), an Italian physicist, became the first scientist to clarify the distinction between atoms and molecules.

The later development of the mole, which provided a means whereby equal numbers of molecules could be compared, paid tribute to Avogadro by designating the number of molecules in a mole as "Avogadro's number." Another contemporary, Swedish chemist Jons Berzelius (1779-1848), maintained that equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contained equal numbers of atoms. Using this idea, he compared the mass of various reacting gases, and developed a system of comparing the mass of various atoms in relation to the lightest one, hydrogen. Berzelius also introduced the system of chemical symbolsH for hydrogen, O for oxygen, and so onin use today.


Yet another figure whose dates overlapped with those of Dalton, Avogadro, and Berzelius was Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858). In 1827, Brown noted a phenomenon that later had an enormous impact on the understanding of the atom. While studying pollen grains under a microscope, Brown noticed that the grains underwent a curious zigzagging motion in the water. The pollen assumed the shape of a colloid, a pattern that occurs when particles of one substance are dispersedbut not dissolvedin another substance. At first, Brown assumed that the motion had a biological explanationthat is, it resulted from life processes within the pollenbut later, he discovered that even pollen from long-dead plants behaved in the same way.

Brown never understood what he was witnessing. Nor did a number of other scientists, who began noticing other examples of what came to be known as Brownian motion: the constant but irregular zigzagging of colloidal particles, which can be seen clearly through a microscope. Later, however, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and others were able to explain this phenomenon by what came to be known as the kinetic theory of matter.

Kinetic theory is based on the idea that molecules are constantly in motion: hence, the water molecules were moving the pollen grains Brown observed. Pollen grains are many thousands of times as large as water molecules, but since there are so many molecules in even a drop of water, and their motion is so constant but apparently random, they are bound to move a pollen grain once every few thousand collisions.

Mendeleev and the Periodic Table

In 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) introduced a highly useful system for organizing the elements, the periodic table. Mendeleev's table is far more than just a handy chart listing elements: at once simple and highly complex, it shows elements in order of increasing atomic mass, and groups together those exhibiting similar forms of chemical behavior and structure.

Reading from right to left and top to bottom, the periodic table, as it is configured today, lists atoms in order of atomic number, generally reflected by a corresponding increase in average atomic mass. As Mendeleev observed, every eighth element on the chart exhibits similar characteristics, and thus the chart is organized in columns representing specific groups of elements.

The patterns Mendeleev observed were so regular that for any "hole" in his table, he predicted that an element would be discovered that would fill that space. For instance, at one point there was a gap between atomic numbers 71 and 73 (lutetium and tantalum, respectively). Mendeleev indicated that an atom would be found for the space, and 15 years after this prediction, the element germanium was isolated.

However, much of what defines an element's place on the chart today relates to subatomic particlesprotons, which determine atomic number, and electrons, whose configurations explain certain chemical similarities. Mendeleev was unaware of these particles: from the time he created his table, it was another three decades before the discovery of the first of these particles, the electron. Instead, he listed the elements in an order reflecting outward characteristics now understood to be the result of the quantity and distribution of protons and electrons.

Electromagnetism and Radiation

The contribution of Mendeleev's contemporary, Maxwell, to the understanding of the atom was not limited to his kinetic theory. Building on the work of British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and others, in 1865 he published a paper outlining a theory of a fundamental interaction between electricity and magnetism. The electromagnetic interaction, as it later turned out, explained something that gravitation, the only other form of fundamental interaction known at the time, could not: the force that held together particles in an atom.

The idea of subatomic particles was still a long time in coming, but the model of electromagnetism helped make it possible. In the long run, electromagnetism was understood to encompass a whole spectrum of energy radiation, including radio waves; infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light; x rays; and gamma rays. But this, too, was the product of work on the part of numerous individuals, among whom was English physicist William Crookes (1832-1919).

In the 1870s, Crookes developed an apparatus later termed a Crookes tube, with which he sought to analyze the "rays"that is, radiationemitted by metals. The tube consisted of a glass bulb, from which most of the air had been removed, encased between two metal plates or electrodes, referred to as a cathode and an anode. A wire led outside the bulb to an electric source, and when electricity was applied to the electrodes, the cathodes emitted rays. Crookes concluded that the cathode rays were particles with a negative electric charge that came from the metal in the cathode plate.


In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923) noticed that photographic plates held near a Crookes tube became fogged, and dubbed the rays that had caused the fogging "x rays." A year after Röntgen's discovery, French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) left some photographic plates in a drawer with a sample of uranium. Uranium had been discovered more than a century before; however, there were few uses for it until Becquerel discovered that the uranium likewise caused a fogging of the photographic plates.

Thus radioactivity, a type of radiation brought about by atoms that experience radioactive decay was discovered. The term was coined by Polish-French physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867-1934), who with her husband Pierre (1859-1906), a French physicist, was responsible for the discovery of several radioactive elements.

The Rise and Fall of the Plum Pudding Model

Working with a Crookes tube, English physicist J. J. Thomson (1856-1940) hypothesized that the negatively charged particles Crookes had observed were being emitted by atoms, and in 1897, he gave a name to these particles: electrons. The discovery of the electron raised a new question: if Thomson's particles exerted a negative charge, from whence did the counterbalancing positive charge come?

An answer, of sorts, came from William Thomson, not related to the other Thomson and, in any case, better known by his title as Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Kelvin compared the structure of an atom to an English plum pudding: the electrons were like raisins, floating in a positively charged "pudding"that is, an undifferentiated cloud of positive charges.

Kelvin's temperature scale contributed greatly to the understanding of molecular motion as encompassed in the kinetic theory of matter. However, his model for the distribution of charges in an atomcharming as it may have beenwas incorrect. Nonetheless, for several decades, the "plum pudding model," as it came to be known, remained the most widely accepted depiction of the way that electric charges were distributed in an atom. The overturning of the plum pudding model was the work of English physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), a student of J. J. Thomson.


Rutherford did not set out to disprove the plum pudding model; rather, he was conducting tests to find materials that would block radiation from reaching a photographic plate. The two materials he identified, which were, respectively, positive and negative in electric charge, he dubbed alpha and beta particles. (An alpha particle is a helium nucleus stripped of its electrons, such that it has a positive charge of 2; beta particles are either electrons or positively charged subatomic particles called positrons. The beta particle Rutherford studied was an electron emitted during radioactive decay.)

Using a piece of thin gold foil with photographic plates encircling it, Rutherford bombarded the foil with alpha particles. Most of the alpha particles went straight through the foilas they should, according to the plum pudding model. However, a few particles were deflected from their course, and some even bounced back. Rutherford later said it was as though he had fired a gun at a piece of tissue paper, only to see the tissue deflect the bullets. Analyzing these results, Rutherford concluded that there was no "pudding" of positive charges: instead, the atom had a positively charged nucleus at its center.

The Nucleus Emerges


In addition to defining the nucleus, Rutherford also gave a name to the particles that imparted its positive charge: protons. But just as the identification of the electron had raised new questions that, in being answered, led to the discovery of the proton, Rutherford's achievement only brought up new anomalies concerning the behavior of the nucleus.

Together with English chemist Frederick Soddy (1877-1956), Rutherford discovered that when an atom emitted alpha or beta particles, its atomic mass changed. Soddy had a name for atoms that displayed this type of behavior: isotopes. Certain types of isotopes, Soddy and Rutherford went on to conclude, had a tendency to decay, moving toward stabilization, and this decay explained radioactivity.


Soddy concluded that atomic mass, as measured by Berzelius, was actually an average of the mass figures for all isotopes within that element. This explained a problem with Mendeleev's periodic table, in which there seemed to be irregularities in the increase of atomic mass from element to element. The answer to these variations in mass, it turned out, related to the number of isotopes associated with a given element: the greater the number of isotopes, the more these affected the overall measure of the element's mass.

By this point, physicists and chemists had come to understand that various levels of energy in matter emitted specific electromagnetic wavelengths. Welsh physicist Henry Moseley (1887-1915) experimented with x rays, bombarding atoms of different elements with high levels of energy and observing the light they gave off as they cooled. In the course of these tests, he uncovered an astounding mathematical relationship: the amount of energy a given element emitted was related to its atomic number.

Furthermore, the atomic number corresponded to the number of positive chargesthis was in 1913, before Rutherford had named the protonin the nucleus. Mendeleev had been able to predict the discovery of new elements, but such predictions had remained problematic. When scientists understood the idea of atomic number, however, it became possible to predict the existence of undiscovered elements with much greater accuracy.


Yet again, discoveriesthe nucleus, protons, and the relationship between these and atomic numberonly created new questions. (This, indeed, is one of the hallmarks of an active scientific theory. Rather than settling questions, science is about raising new ones, and thus improving the quality of the questions that are asked.) Once Rutherford had identified the proton, and Moseley had established the number of protons, the mystery at the heart of the atom only grew deeper.

Scientists had found that the measured mass of atoms could not be accounted for by the number of protons they contained. Certainly, the electrons had little to do with atomic mass: by then it had been shown that the electron weighed about 0.06% as much as a proton. Yet for all elements other than protium (the first of three hydrogen isotopes), there was a discrepancy between atomic mass and atomic number. Clearly, there had to be something else inside the nucleus.

In 1932, English physicist James Chadwick (1891-1974) identified that "something else." Working with radioactive material, he found that a certain type of subatomic particle could penetrate lead. All other known types of radiation were stopped by the lead, and therefore, Chadwick reasoned that this particle must be neutral in charge. In 1932, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron.

The Nuclear Explosion


Chadwick's discovery clarified another mystery, that of the isotope, which had been raised by Rutherford and Soddy several decades earlier. Obviously, the number of protons in a nucleus did not change, but until the identification of the neutron, it had not been clear what it was that did change. At that point, it was understood that two atoms may have the same atomic numberand hence be of the same elementyet they may differ in number of neutrons, and thus be isotopes.

As the image of what an isotope was became clearer, so too did scientists' comprehension of radioactivity. Radioactivity, it was discovered, was most intense where an isotope was the most unstablethat is, in cases where an isotope had the greatest tendency to experience decay. Uranium had a number of radioactive isotopes, such as

235U, and these found application in the burgeoning realm of nuclear powerboth the destructive power of atomic bombs, and later the constructive power of nuclear energy plants.


In nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms, uranium isotopes (or other radioactive isotopes) are bombarded with neutrons, splitting the uranium nucleus in half and releasing huge amounts of energy. As the nucleus is halved, it emits several extra neutrons, which spin off and split more uranium nuclei, creating still more energy and setting off a chain reaction. This explains the destructive power in an atomic bomb, as well as the constructive powerproviding energy to homes and businessesin a nuclear power plant. Whereas the chain reaction in an atomic bomb becomes an uncontrolled explosion, in a nuclear plant the reaction is slowed and controlled.

Yet nuclear fission is not the most powerful form of atomic reaction. As soon as scientists realized that it was possible to force particles out of a nucleus, they began to wonder if particles could be forced into the nucleus. This type of reaction, known as fusion, puts even nuclear fission, with its awesome capabilities, to shame: nuclear fusion is, after all, the power of the Sun. On the surface of that great star, hydrogen atoms reach incredible temperatures, and their nuclei fuse to create helium. In other words, one element actually transforms into another, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process.


The atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in 1945 were fission bombs. These were the creation of a group of scientistslegendary figures such as American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), American mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957), American physicist Edward Teller (1908-), and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)involved in the Manhattan Project at Las Alamos, New Mexico.

Some of these geniuses, particularly Oppenheimer, were ambivalent about the moral implications of the enormous destructive power they created. However, most military historians believe that far more livesboth Japanese and Americanwould have been lost if America had been forced to conduct a land invasion of Japan. As it was, the Japanese surrendered shortly after the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the devastating effects of fission-based explosions.

By 1952, U.S. scientists had developed a "hydrogen," or fusion bomb, thus raising the stakes greatly. This was a bomb that possessed far more destructive capability than the ones dropped over Japan. Fortunately, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were the only ones dropped in wartime, and a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing has greatly reduced the chances of human exposure to nuclear fallout of any kind. With the end of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear destruction has receded somewhatthough it will perhaps always be a part of human life.

Nonetheless, fear of nuclear power, spawned as a result of the arms race, continues to cloud the future of nuclear plants that generate electricityeven though these, in fact, emit less radioactive pollution than coalor gas-burning power plants. At the same time, scientists continue to work on developing a process of power generation by means of nuclear fusion, which, if and when it is achieved, will be one of the great miracles of science.


One of the tools used by scientists researching nuclear fusion is the particle accelerator, which moves streams of charged particlesprotons, for instancefaster and faster. These fast particles are then aimed at a thin plate composed of a light element, such as lithium. If the proton manages to be "captured" in the nucleus of a lithium atom, the resulting nucleus is unstable, and breaks into alpha particles.

This method of induced radioactivity is among the most oft-used means of studying nuclear structure and subatomic particles. In 1932, the same year that Chadwick discovered the neutron, English physicist John D. Cockcroft (1897-1967) and Irish physicist Ernest Walton (1903-1995) built the first particle accelerator. Some particle accelerators today race the particles in long straight lines or, to save space, in ringed paths several miles in diameter.

Quantum Theory and Beyond


It may seem strange that in this lengthy (though, in fact, quite abbreviated!) overview of developments in understanding of the atom, no mention has been made of the figure most associated with the atom in the popular mind: German-American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955). The reasons for this are several. Einstein's relativity theory addresses physical, rather than chemical, processes, and did not directly contribute to enhanced understanding of atomic structure or elements. The heart of relativity theory is the famous formula E = mc2, which means that every item of matter possesses energy proportional to its mass multiplied by the squared speed of light.

The value of mc2, of course, is an enormous amount of energy, and in order to be released in significant quantities, an article of matter must experience the kinetic energy associated with very, very high speedsspeeds close to that of light. Obviously, the easiest thing to accelerate to such a speed is an atom, and hence, nuclear energy is a result of Einstein's famous equation. Nonetheless, it should be stressed that although Einstein is associated with unlocking the power of the atom, he did little to explain what atoms are.

However, in the course of developing his relativity theory in 1905, Einstein put to rest a question about atoms and molecules that still remained unsettled after more than a century. Einstein's analysis of Brownian motion, combined with the confirmation of his results by French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942), showed conclusively that yes, atoms and molecules do exist. It may seem amazing that as recently as 1905, this was still in doubt; however, this only serves to illustrate the arduous path scientists must tread in developing a theory that accurately explains the world.


A figure whose name deserves to be as much a household word as Einstein'sthough it is notis German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947). It was Planck who initiated the quantum theory that Einstein developed further, a theory that prevails today in the physical sciences.

At the atomic level, Planck showed, energy is emitted in tiny packets or "quanta." Each of these energy packets is indivisible, and the behavior of quanta redefine the old rules of physics handed down from Newton and Maxwell. Thus, it is Planck's quantum theory, rather than Einstein's relativity, that truly marks the watershed, or "before and after," between classical physics and modern physics.

Quantum theory is important not only to physics, but to chemistry as well. It helps to explain the energy levels of electrons, which are not continuous, as in a spectrum, but jump between certain discrete points. The quantum model is now also applied to the overall behavior of the electron; but before this could be fully achieved, scientists had to develop a new understanding of the way electrons move around the nucleus.


As was often the case in the history of the atom, a man otherwise respected as a great scientist put forward a theory of atomic structure that at first seemed convincing, but ultimately turned out to be inaccurate. In this case, it was Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962), a seminal figure in the development of nuclear fission.

Using the observation, derived from quantum theory, that electrons only occupied specific energy levels, Bohr hypothesized that electrons orbited around a nucleus in the same way that planets orbit the Sun. There is no reason to believe that Bohr formed this hypothesis for any sentimental reasonsthough, of course, scientists are just as capable of prejudice as anyone. His work was based on his studies; nonetheless, it is easy to see how this model seemed appealing, showing as it did an order at the subatomic level reflecting an order in the heavens.


Many people today who are not scientifically trained continue to think that an atom is structured much like the Solar System. This image is reinforced by symbolism, inherited from the 1950s, that represents "nuclear power" by showing a dot (the nucleus) surrounded by ovals at angles to one another, representing the orbital paths of electrons. However, by the 1950s, this model of the atom had already been overturned.

In 1923, French physicist Louis de Broglie (1892-1987) introduced the particle-wave hypothesis, which indicated that electrons could sometimes have the properties of wavesan eventuality not encompassed in the Bohr model. It became clear that though Bohr was correct in maintaining that electrons occupy specific energy levels, his planetary model was inadequate for explaining the behavior of electrons.

Two years later, in 1925, German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) introduced what came to be known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, showing that the precise position and speed of an electron cannot be known at the same time. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) developed an equation for calculating how an electron with a certain energy moves, identifying regions in an atom where an electron possessing a certain energy level is likely to be. Schrödinger's equation cannot, however, identify the location exactly.

Rather than being called orbits, which suggest the orderly pattern of Bohr's model, Schrödinger's regions of probability are called orbitals. Moving within these orbitals, electrons describe the shape of a cloud, as discussed much earlier in this essay; as a result, the "electron cloud" theory prevails today. This theory incorporates aspects of Bohr's model, inasmuch as electrons move from one orbital to another by absorbing or emitting a quantum of energy.


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"Explore the Atom" CERNEuropean Organization for Nuclear Research (Web site). <> (May 18, 2001).

Gallant, Roy A. The Ever-Changing Atom. New York: Benchmark Books, 1999.

Goldstein, Natalie. The Nature of the Atom. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2001.

"A Look Inside the Atom" (Web site). <> (May 18, 2001).

"Portrait of the Atom" (Web site). <> (May 18, 2001).

"A Science Odyssey: You Try It: Atom Builder." PBSPublic Broadcasting System (Web site). <> (May 18, 2001).

Spangenburg, Ray and Diane K. Moser. The History of Science in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Zumdahl, Steven S. Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.



The smallest particle of an element that retains all the chemical and physical properties of the element. Anatom can exist either alone or in combination with other atoms in a molecule. Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.


An SI unit (abbreviated amu), equal to 1.66 · 1024 g, for measuring the mass of atoms.


The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. Since this number is different for each element, elements are listed on the periodic table of elements in order of atomic number.


A figure used by chemists to specify the massin atomic mass unitsof the average atom in a large sample.


A one-or two-letter abbreviation for the name of an element.


A substance made up of atoms of more than one element. These atoms are usually joined in molecules.


Negatively charged particles in an atom. Electrons, which spin around the protons and neutrons that make up the atom's nucleus, constitute a very small portion of the atom's mass. The number of electrons and protons is the same, thus canceling out one another; on the other hand, if an atom loses or gainselectrons, it becomes an ion.


Another term for chemical symbol.


An atom or atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons, and thus has a net electric charge.


Atoms that have an equal number of protons, and hence are of the same element, but differ in their number of neutrons.


The sum of protons and neutrons in an atom's nucleus.


A group of atoms, usually (but not always) representing more than one element, joined in a structure. Compounds are typically made up of molecules.


A subatomic particle that has no electric charge. Neutrons are found at the nucleus of an atom, alongside protons.


A generic term for the heavy particlesprotons and neutronsthat make up the nucleus of an atom.


Another term for mass number.


The center of an atom, a region where protons and neutrons are located, and around which electrons spin.


A chart that shows the elements arranged in order of atomic number, along with chemical symbol and the average atomic mass (in atomic mass units) for that particular element. Vertical columns within the periodic table indicate groups or "families" of elements with similar chemical characteristics.


A positively charged particle in an atom. Protons and neutrons, which together form the nucleus around which electrons spin, have approximately the same massa mass that is many times greater than that of an electron.


A particle believed to be a component of protons and neutrons. A quarkmay either have a positive electric charge of less than 1+, in which case it is called an "up quark"; or a negative charge of less than 1, in which case it is called a "down quark."


In a general sense, radiation can refer to anything that travels in astream, whether that stream be composed of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves. In a more specific sense, the term relates to the radiation from radio active materials, which can be harmful to humanbeings.


A term describing a phenomenon whereby certain isotopes are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles or radiation, such as alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays.


views updated May 09 2018


An atom is the smallest possible unit of an element. Since all forms of matter consist of a combination of one or more elements, atoms are the building blocks that constitute all the matter in the universe. Currently, 110 different elements, and thus 110 different kinds of atoms, are known to exist.

Our current understanding of the nature of atoms has evolved from the ancient, untested ideas of Greek philosophers, partly as a result of modern technology that has produced images of atoms.

The Greek Atomistic Philosophy

The earliest ideas concerning atoms can be traced to the Greek philosophers, who pursued wisdom, knowledge, and truth through argument and reason. Greek scientific theories were largely based on speculation, sometimes based on observations of natural phenomena and sometimes not. The idea of designing and performing experiments rarely occurred to Greek philosophers, to whom abstract intellectual activity was the only worthy pastime.

Empedocles, a Greek philosopher active around 450 b.c., proposed that there were four fundamental substancesearth, air, fire, and waterwhich, in various proportions, constituted all matter. Empedocles, thus, formulated the idea of an elemental substance, a substance that is the ultimate constituent of matter; the chemical elements are modern science's fundamental substances. An atomic theory of matter was proposed by Leucippus, another Greek philosopher, around 478b.c. Our knowledge of the atomic theory of Leucippus is derived almost entirely from the writings of his student, Democritus, who lived around 420b.c. Democritus maintained that all materials in the world were composed of atoms (from the Greek atomos, meaning indivisible). According to Democritus, atoms of different shapes, arranged and positioned differently relative to each other, accounted for the different materials of the world. Atoms were supposed to be in random perpetual motion in a void; that is, in nothingness. According to Democritus, the feel and taste of a substance was thought to be the effect of the atoms of the substance on the atoms of our sense organs. The atomic theory of Democritus provided the basis for an explanation of the changes that occur when matter is chemically transformed. Unfortunately, the theory was rejected by Aristotle (384322b.c.) who became the most powerful and famous of the Greek scientific philosophers. However, Aristotle adopted and developed Empedocles's ideas of elemental substances. Aristotle's elemental ideas are summarized in a diagram (shown in Figure 1), which associated the four elemental substances with four qualities: hot, moist, cold, and dry. Earth was dry and cold; water was cold and moist; air was moist and hot; and fire was hot and dry. Every substance was composed of combinations of the four elements, and changes (which we now call chemical ) were explained by an alteration in the proportions of the four elements. One element could be converted into the other by the addition or removal of the appropriate qualities. There were, essentially, no attempts to produce evidence to support this four-element theory, and, since Aristotle's scientific philosophy held sway for 2,000 years, there was no progress in the development of the atomic concept. The tenuous relationship between elements and atoms had been severed when Aristotle rejected the ideas of Democritus. Had the Greek philosophers been open to the idea of experimentation, atomic theory, indeed all of science, could have progressed more rapidly.

The Rise of Experimentation

The basis of modern science began to emerge in the seventeenth century, which is often recognized as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Conceptually, the Scientific Revolution can be thought of as a battle between three different ways of looking at the natural world: the Aristotelian, the magical, and the mechanical. The seventeenth century saw the rise of experimental science. The idea of making observations was not new. However, Sir Francis Bacon (15611626) emphasized that experiments should be planned and the results carefully recorded so they could be repeated and verified, an attitude that infuses the core idea of modern science. Among the early experimentalists was Robert Boyle (16271691), who studied quantitatively the compression and expansion of air, which led him to the idea that air was composed of particles that he called corpuscles, which he maintained were in constant motion. Boyle's description of corpuscular motion presages the kinetic molecular theory.

The Chemical Atom

An atomic theory based on chemical concepts began to emerge from the work of Antoine Lavoisier (17431794), whose careful quantitative experiments led to an operational definition of an element: An element was a substance that could not be decomposed by chemical processes. In other words, if a chemist could not decompose a substance, it must be an element. This point of view obviously put a premium on the ability of chemists to manipulate substances. Inspection of Lavoisier's list of elements, published in 1789, shows a number of substances, such as silica (SiO2), alumina (Al2O3), and baryta (BaO), which today are recognized as very stable compounds. The chemists of Lavoisier's time simply did not have the tools to decompose these substances further to silicon, aluminum, and barium, respectively. The composition of all compounds could be expressed in terms of the elemental substances, but it was the quantitative mass relationship of compounds that was the key to deducing the reality of the chemical atom.

Lavoisier's successful use of precise mass measurements essentially launched the field of analytical chemistry, which was thoroughly developed by Martin Klaproth (17431817). Lavoisier established the concept of mass conservation in chemical reactions, and, late in the eighteenth century, there was a general acceptance of the concept of definite proportions (constant composition) in chemical compounds, but not without controversy. Claude-Louis Berthollet (17481822) maintained that the composition of compounds could be variable, citing, for example, analytical results on the oxides of copper, which gave a variety of results, depending on the method of synthesis . Joseph-Louis Proust (17541826), over a period of eight years, showed that the variable compositions, even with very accurate analytical data, were due to the formation of different mixtures of two oxides of copper, CuO and Cu2O. Each oxide obeyed the law of constant composition, but reactions that were supposed to lead to "copper oxide" often produced mixtures, the proportions of which depended on the conditions of the reaction. Proust's proof of the law of constant composition was important, because compounds with variable composition could not be accommodated within the evolving chemical atomic theory.


Little is known for certain about Democritus of Abbera (c.460 b.c.e.c.362 b.c.e.). None of his writings has survived intact. It is known from others (both students and detractors) that Democritus was one of the earliest advocates of a theory that all matter exists as collections of very small, permanent, indivisible particle called atoms.

David A. Bassett

John Dalton (17661844), a self-educated English scientist, was primarily interested in meteorology and is credited with being the first to describe color blindness, a condition with which he was burdened throughout his life. Color blindness is a disadvantage for a chemist, who must be able to see color changes when working with chemicals. Some have suggested that his affliction was one reason why Dalton was a rather clumsy and slip-shod experimenter. Gaseous behavior had been well established, starting with the experiments of Boyle. Dalton could not help supposing, as others previously did, that gaseous matter was composed of particles. But Dalton took the next and, ultimately, most important steps in assuming that all mattergaseous, liquid, and solidconsists of these small particles. The law of definite proportions (constant composition) as articulated by Proust, suggested to Dalton that a compound might contain two elements in the ratio of, for example, 4 to 1, but never 4.1 to 1 or 3.9 to 1. This observation could easily be explained by supposing that each element was made up of individual particles.

Dalton's atomic theory can be succinctly summarized by the following statements:

Elements are composed of extremely small particles called atoms.

All atoms of a given element have identical properties, and those properties differ from those of other elements.

Compounds are formed when atoms of different elements combine with one another in small whole numbers.

The relative numbers and kinds of atoms are constant in a given compound.

Dalton recognized the similarity of his theory to that of Democritus, advanced twenty-one centuries earlier when the Greek philosopher called these small particles atoms, and, presumably, implied by using that word that these particles were indivisible. In Dalton's representation (Figure 2) the elements were shown as small spheres, each with a separate identity. Compounds of elements were shown by combining the appropriate elemental representations in the correct proportions, to produce complex symbols that seem to echo our present use of standard chemical formulas. Dalton's symbolscircles with increasingly complex inserts and decorationswere not adopted by the chemical community. Current chemical symbols (formulas) are derived from the suggestions of Jöns Berzelius (17791848). Berzelius also chose oxygen to be the standard reference for atomic mass (O = 16.00 AMU). Berzelius produced a list of atomic masses that were much closer to those that are currently accepted because he had developed a better way to obtain the formulas of substances. Whereas Dalton assumed that water had the formula HO, Berzelius showed it to be H2O. The property of atoms of interest to Dalton were their relative masses, and Dalton produced a table of atomic masses (Table 1) that was seriously deficient because he did not appreciate that atoms did not have to be in a one-to-one ratio; using more modern ideas, Dalton assumed, incorrectly, that all atoms had a valence of one (1). Thus, if the atomic mass of hydrogen is arbitrarily assigned to be 1, the atomic mass of oxygen is 8 on the Dalton scale. Dalton, of course, was wrong, because a water molecule contains two atoms of hydrogen for every oxygen atom, so that the individual oxygen atom is eight times as heavy as two hydrogen atoms or sixteen times as heavy as a single hydrogen atom. There was no way that Dalton could have known, from the data available, that the formula for water is H2O.

Dalton's atomic theory explained the law of multiple proportions. For example, it is known that mercury forms two oxides: a black substance containing 3.8 percent oxygen and 96.2 percent mercury, and a red compound containing 7.4 percent oxygen and 92.6 percent mercury. Dalton's theory states that the atoms of mercury (Hg) and oxygen (O) must combine in whole numbers, so the two compounds might be HgO and Hg2O, for example. Furthermore, Dalton's theory states that each element has a characteristic massperhaps 9 mass units for Hg and 4 mass units for O (the

Phosphuretted hydrogen8.2
Nitrous gas9.3
Gaseous oxide of carbon9.8
Nitrous oxide13.7
Nitric acid15.2
Sulphuretted hydrogen15.4
Carbonic acid15.3
Sulphureous acid19.9
Sulphuric acid25.4
Carburetted hydrogen from stagnant water6.3
Olefiant gas5.3

numbers were chosen arbitrarily, here). Given these assumptions, the relevant concepts are shown in Table 2.

The assumed formulas are presented in line 1. The percent composition of each compound, calculated in the usual way, is presented in line 3, showing that these two compounds, indeed, have different compositions, as required by the law of multiple proportions. Line 4 contains the ratio of the mass of mercury to the mass of oxygen, for each compound. Those ratios can be expressed as the ratio of simple whole numbers (2.25:4.5 = 1:2), fulfilling a condition required by the law of multiple proportions. Notice that Dalton's ideas do not depend upon the values assigned to the elements or the formulas for the compounds involved. Indeed, the question as to which compound, red or black, is associated with which formula cannot be answered from the data available. Thus, although Dalton was unable to establish an atomic mass scale, his general theory did provide an understanding of the three mass-related laws: conservation, constant composition, and multiple proportion. Other information was required to establish the relative masses of atoms.

The other piece of the puzzle of relative atomic masses was provided by Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac (17781850), who published a paper on volume relationships in reactions of gases. Gay-Lussac made no attempt to interpret his results, and Dalton questioned the paper's validity, not realizing that the law of combining volumes was really a verification of his atomic theory! Gay-Lussac's experiments revealed, for example, that 2 volumes of carbon monoxide combine with 1 volume of oxygen to form 2 volumes of carbon dioxide. Reactions of other gaseous substances showed similar volume relationships. Gay-Lussac's law of combining volumes suggested, clearly, that equal volumes of different gases under similar conditions of temperature and pressure contain the same number of reactive particles (molecules). Thus, if 1 volume of ammonia gas (NH3) combines exactly with 1 volume of hydrogen chloride gas (HCl) to form a salt (NH4Cl), it is natural to conclude that each volume of gas must contain the same number of particles.

Assumed formulaHgOHg 2O
Total mass of compound9 + 4 = 139 + 9 + 4 = 22
% composition% Hg 69.2; % O = 30.8% Hg = 81.8; % O = 18.2
Mass Hg/Mass O9/4 = 2.2518/4 = 4.5

At least one of the implications of Gay-Lussac's law was troubling to the chemistry community. For example, in the formation of water, 2 volumes of hydrogen gas combined with 1 volume of oxygen gas to produce 2 volumes of steam (water in the gaseous state). These observations produced, at the time, an apparent puzzle. If each volume of gas contains n particles (molecules), 2 volumes of steam must contain 2 n particles. Now, if each water particle contains at least 1 oxygen atom, how is it possible to get two oxygen atoms (corresponding to 2 n water molecules) from n oxygen particles? The obvious answer to this question is that each oxygen particle contains two oxygen atoms. This is equivalent to stating that the oxygen molecule consists of two oxygen atoms, or that oxygen gas is diatomic (O2). Amedeo Avogadro (17761856) an Italian physicist, resolved the problem by adopting the hypothesis that equal volumes of gases under the same conditions contain equal numbers of particles (molecules). His terminology for what we now call an atom of, for instance, oxygen, was half molecule. Similar reasoning involving the combining of volumes of hydrogen and oxygen to form steam leads to the conclusion that hydrogen gas is also diatomic (H2). Despite the soundness of Avogadro's reasoning, his hypothesis was generally rejected or ignored. Dalton never appreciated its significance because he refused to accept the experimental validity of Gay-Lussac's law.

Avogadro's hypothesisequal volumes of gases contain equal numbers of particleslay dormant for nearly a half-century, until 1860 when a general meeting of chemists assembled in Karlsruhe, Germany, to address conceptual problems associated with determining the atomic masses of the elements. Two years earlier, Stanislao Cannizzaro (18261910) had published a paper in which, using Avogadro's hypothesis and vapor density data, he was able to establish a scale of relative atomic masses of the elements. The paper, when it was published, was generally ignored, but its contents became the focal point of the Karlsruhe Conference.

Cannizzaro's argument can be easily demonstrated using the compounds hydrogen chloride, water, ammonia, and methane, and the element hydrogen, which had been shown to be diatomic (H2) by using Gay-Lussac's reasoning and his law of combining volumes. The experimental values for vapor density of these substances, all determined under the same conditions of temperature and pressure, are also required for Cannizzaro's method for establishing atomic masses. The relevant information is gathered in Table 3. The densities of these gaseous substances (at 100° C and one atmosphere pressure) are expressed in grams per liter. The masses of the substances (in one liter) are the masses of equal numbers of molecules of each substance; the specific number of molecules is unknown, of course, but that number is unnecessary for the Cannizzaro analysis. If that unknown number of molecules is called N, and if m H represents the mass of a single hydrogen atom, then m H × 2N is the total

Gaseous SubstanceDensity g/L1Relative to Mass of an H Atom (Molecular Mass, Relative to H = 1)% HydrogenRelative Mass of H PresentNumber H Atoms Present in a MoleculeFormulaMass of "Other" Atoms
1Density reported for conditions of 100°C and one atmosphere pressure
Hydrogen0.06592.001002.002H2H = 1
Hydrogen chloride1.1936.122.761.001HClCl = 35.2
Water0.58917.8811.22.002H2OO = 15,88
Ammonia0.55716.9017.73.003NH3N = 13.90
Methane0.52415.9025.14.004CH4C = 11.90

mass of the hydrogen atoms in the 1 liter sample of hydrogen molecules; recall that hydrogen was shown to be diatomic (H2) by Gay-Lussac's law. From this point of view, the relative masses of the molecules fall in the order of the masses in 1 liter (or their densities). The mass of the hydrogen atom was taken as the reference (H = 1) for the relative atomic masses of the elements. Thus, the mass of all the hydrogen chloride molecules in the one liter sample is m HClN, and the ratio of the mass of a hydrogen chloride molecule to a hydrogen atom is given by:

That is, if the mass of a hydrogen atom is taken to be 1 unit of mass, the mass of the hydrogen chloride molecule is 36.12 units. All the molecular masses listed in column 3 of the table can be established in the same waytwice the ratio of the density of the molecule in question to the density of hydrogen. Using experimental analytical data (column 4), Cannizzaro was able to establish the relative mass of hydrogen in each molecule (column 5), which gave the number of hydrogen atoms present in each molecule of interest (column 6), which, in turn, produced the formula of the molecule (column 7); analytical data also quantitatively indicate the identity of the other atom in the molecule. Thus, analysis would tell us that, for example, methane contains hydrogen and carbon. Knowing the total mass of the molecule (column 3) and the mass of all the hydrogen atoms present, the mass of the "other atom" in the molecule can be established as the difference between these numbers (column 8). Thus, if the mass of the HCl molecule is 36.12 and one atom of hydrogen of mass 1.00 is present, the mass of a Cl atom is 35.12. Relative mass units are called atomic mass units , AMUs.

This very convincing use of Gay-Lussac's law and Avogadro's hypothesis by Cannizzaro quickly provided the chemical community with a direct way of establishing not only the molecular formulas of binary compounds but also the relative atomic masses of elements, starting with quantitative analytical data and the density of the appropriate gaseous substances.

The long struggle to establish the concept of the chemical atom involved many scientists working in different countries using different kinds of equipment to obtain self-consistent data. All were infused with ideas of Sir Francis Bacon, who defined the classic paradigm of experimental scienceresults that are derived from careful observations and that are openly reported for verification. However, not all chemists equally embraced these ideas, which were to become fundamental to their craft. For example, the great physical chemist and Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (18531932) refused to accept the existence of atoms well into the twentieth century. Ostwald held a strong personal belief that chemists ought to confine their studies to measurable phenomena such as energy changes. The atomic theory was to Ostwald nothing more than a convenient fiction.

There are, of course, other lines of observations and arguments that lead to the conclusion that matter is particulate and, subsequently, to an ultimate atomic description of matter. One of these involves the Brownian motion of very small particles. Robert Brown (17731858), a Scottish botanist, observed in 1827 that individual grains of plant pollen suspended in water moved erratically. This irregular movement of individual particles of a suspension as observed with a microscope is called Brownian motion. Initially, Brown believed that this motion was caused by the "hidden life" within the pollen grains, but further studies showed that even nonliving suspensions behave in the same way. In 1905 Albert Einstein (18791955) worked out a mathematical analysis of Brownian motion. Einstein showed that if the water in which the particles were suspended was composed of molecules in random motion according to the requirements of the kinetic molecular theory, then the suspended particles would exhibit a random "jiggling motion" arising from the occasional uneven transfer of momentum as a result of water molecules striking the pollen grains. One might expect that the forces of the water molecules striking the pollen grains from all directions would average out to a zero net force. But Einstein showed that, occasionally, more water molecules would strike one side of a pollen grain than the other side, resulting in a movement of the pollen grain. The interesting point in Einstein's analysis is that even if each collision between a water molecule and a pollen grain transfers a minuscule amount of momentum, the enormous

number of molecules striking the pollen grain is sufficient to overcome the large momentum advantage of the pollen grain (because of its considerably larger mass than that of a water molecule). Although the Swedish chemist Theodor Svedberg (18841971) suggested the general molecular explanation earlier, it was Einstein who worked out the mathematical details. Einstein's analysis of Brownian motion was partially dependent on the size of the water molecules. Three years later, Jean-Baptiste Perrin (18701942) set about to determine the size of the water molecules from precise experimental observations of Brownian motion. In other words, Perrin assumed Einstein's equations were correct, and he made measurements of the particles' motions, which Brown had described only qualitatively. The data Perrin collected allowed him to calculate the size of water molecules. Ostwald finally yielded in his objection to the existence of atoms because Perrin had a direct measure of the effect of water molecules on macroscopic objects (pollen grains). Since water was composed of the elements hydrogen and oxygen, the reality of atoms had been experimentally proved in Ostwald's view of how chemistry should be pursued.

Ostwald's reluctance to accept the chemical atom as an entity would surely have yielded to the overwhelming evidence provided by scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). Although Ostwald did not live to see it, this technique provides such clear evidence of the reality of simple atoms that even he would have been convinced.

see also Avogadro, Amedeo; Berthollet, Claude-Louis; Berzelius, Jöns JaKob; Boyle, Robert; Cannizzaro, Stanislao; Dalton, John; Einstein, Albert; Gay-Lussac, Joseph-Louis; Lavoisier, Antoine; Ostwald, Friedrich Wilhelm; Svedberg, Theodor; Molecules.

J. J. Lagowski


Hartley, Harold (1971). Studies in the History of Chemistry. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Ihde, Aaron J. (1964). The Development of Modern Chemistry. New York: Harper and Row.

Lavoisier, Antoine; Fourier, Jean-Baptiste Joseph; and Faraday, Michael (1952). Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 45, tr. Robert Kerr and Alexander Freeman. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.


views updated May 21 2018


An atom is the smallest particle of a element that has all the properties of that element. Imagine that you decide to cut a chunk of aluminum metal into half, over and over again. At some point, you would need very small tools to do the cutting, tools smaller than anything that really exists. However, you would eventually get to the very smallest piece of aluminum that still has all the properties of the original chunk. That smallest piece is an atom of aluminum.


One of the questions that ancient Greeks thinkers debated was the structure of matter. Is matter, they asked, continuous or discontinuous? That is, in the aluminum example mentioned above, can a person continue to cut a chunk of aluminum into smaller pieces for ever and ever? Or would the person eventually reach some smallest piece of aluminum that could be divided no further?

Two of the philosophers who argued for the latter opinion were Leucippus (born about 490 b.c.) and his student Democritus (c. 470c. 380 b.c.). It was Democritus, in fact, who first used the word atomos to describe the smallest possible particles of matter. Atomos means "indivisible" in Greek.

The particle theory of matter was not developed to any great extent for more than 2,000 years. Then, in 1808, English chemist John Dalton (17661844) rephrased the theory in modern terms. Dalton thought of atoms as tiny, indivisible particles, similar to ball bearings or marbles. Dalton's theory of atoms satisfactorily explained what was then known about matter; it was quickly accepted by many other (although not all) chemists.

In the two centuries since Dalton first proposed the modern concept of atoms, that concept has undergone some dramatic changes. We no longer believe that atoms are indivisible particles. We know that they consist of smaller units, known as protons, neutrons, and electrons. These particles are called subatomic particles because they are all smaller than an atom itself. Some subatomic particles are capable of being divided into even smaller units known as quarks.

Modern models of the atom

Scientists think of atoms today in mathematical terms. They use mathematical equations to represent the likelihood of finding electrons in various parts of the atom and to describe the structure of the atomic nucleus, in which protons and neutrons exist.

Most people still find it helpful to think about atoms in physical terms that we can picture in our minds. For most purposes, these pictures are good enough to understand what atoms are like. An atom consists of two parts, a nucleus and a set of one or more electrons spinning around the nucleus.

The nucleus is located at the center of an atom. It consists of one or more protons and, with the exception of the hydrogen atom, one or more neutrons. The number of protons in an atom is given the name atomic number. An atom with one proton in its nucleus has an atomic number of 1, while an atom with sixteen protons in its nucleus has an atomic number of 16. The total number of protons and neutrons in a nucleus is called the atom's mass number. An atom with two protons and two neutrons, for example, has a mass number of 4.

The number of electrons located outside the nucleus of an atom is always the same as the number of protons. An atom with seven protons in its nucleus (no matter how many neutrons) also has seven electrons outside the nucleus. Those electrons travel in paths around the nucleus somewhat similar to the orbits followed by planets around the Sun. Each

of these orbits can hold a certain number of electrons. The first orbit, for example, may hold up to two electrons, but no more. The second orbit may hold up to eight electrons, but no more. The third orbit may hold a maximum of 18 electrons.

These limits determine how the electrons in an atom are distributed. Suppose that the nucleus of an atom contains nine protons. Then the atom also contains nine electrons outside the nucleus. Two of the electrons can be in the first orbit around the nucleus, but the other seven must go to the second orbit.

The term electron orbit is not really correct, even if it does help understand what an electron's path looks like. A better term is electron energy level. The closer an electron is to the nucleus of an atom, the less energy it has; the farther away from the nucleus, the more energy it has.

Physical dimensions

An atom and the particles of which it is composed can be fully described by knowing three properties: mass, electrical charge, and spin.

The mass of protons, neutrons, and electrons is so small that normal units of measurement (such as the gram or centigram) are not used. As an example, the actual mass of a proton is 1.6753 × 1024 g, or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001 675 3 grams. Numbers of this size are so inconvenient to work with that scientists have invented a special unit known as the atomic mass unit (abbreviation: amu) to state the mass of subatomic particles. One atomic mass unit (1 amu) is approximately equal to the mass of a single proton. Using this measure, the mass of a neutron is also about 1 amu, and the mass of an electron, about 0.00055 amu.

The mass of an atom, then, is equal to the total mass of all protons, neutrons, and electrons added together. In the case of the oxygen atom, that mass is expressed as follows:

mass of oxygen atom = mass of 8 protons + 8 neutrons + 8 electrons

mass of one oxygen atom = 8 amu + 8 amu + (8 × 0.00055 amu)

mass of one oxygen atom = 16.0044 amu

The total mass of an atom is called its atomic mass or, less accurately, its atomic weight. As you can see, the mass of an atom depends primarily on the mass of its protons and neutrons and is hardly affected by the mass of its electrons.

The actual mass and size of atoms using ordinary units of measurement are both very small. The mass of one oxygen atom measured in grams is 5.36 × 1023 g or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 053 6 grams.

The dimensions of an atom and its nucleus are also amazingly small. The distance across the outside of a typical atom is about 1010 m, or 0.000 000 000 1 meters. In contrast, the distance across a nucleus is about 1015 m, or 0.000 000 000 000 001 meters. In another words, an atom is about 100,000 times larger in size than it its nucleus. To get some idea of this comparison, imagine a pea placed in the center of a large football stadium. If the pea represents the nucleus of an atom, the closest electrons in the atom would be spinning around outside the outermost reaches of the stadium's upper seats.

[See also Atomic mass; Atomic theory; Electron; Element, chemical; Matter, states of; Subatomic particles ]


views updated May 14 2018


Ordinary physical and chemical matter is made of atoms. An atom is defined by its atomic number Z : A neutral atom has Z electrons, whose negative electric charge is matched by an equal positive charge on a small but massive nucleus. The structure of the atom is determined by the electrostatic attraction of each electron to the nucleus, by the electrostatic repulsion between the electrons, by the laws of quantum dynamics that apply to matter on small scales, and, finally, by the feature of quantum physics called the Pauli principle, which limits the degree to which a group of electrons may be compressed. An atom can exist in many states, each with a definite energy E and angular momentum J. Free atoms in their ground state are approximately spherical, and, although they do not have a sharp boundary, when in interaction with other atoms, they have an effective diameter between approximately 0.04 and 0.28 nanometers. Atomic ions are structurally like neutral atoms, except the number of electrons is different from that required to balance the nuclear electric charge.

Atomic structure is a rich subject, studied experimentally by a wide variety of methods, among which optical, X-ray, and radiofrequency (rf) spectroscopy are especially important. Atomic spectra are affected by external magnetic fields (the Zeeman effect) and electric fields (the Stark effect). The coupling of nuclear and atomic degrees of freedom leads to small effects, such as electric and magnetic hyperfine structure and isotope shift, but only in such fine details does atomic structure depend on the atomic mass A (or equivalently, the neutron number N ). The electron capture mechanism of nuclear beta decay, and the internal conversion that parallels nuclear gamma decay, are other kinds of atom-nuclear interaction.

In the early 1980s Hans Dehmelt showed that single atoms can be isolated and studied in an electromagnetic trap. In a similar way, with the help of laser beams, small-scale gases of identical atoms (e.g., a few to millions of atoms) can also be produced, cooled to low temperature, and studied. At sufficiently low temperature the effects of the Pauli principle can be observed, leading to a filled Fermi sea or to Bose-Einstein condensation, depending on whether the total number of fermions (electrons and nucleons) is odd or even, respectively. For the even case, coherent (laserlike) beams of atoms can be produced through these same techniques.

Charged particles moving through matter lose energy by ionizing atoms, and the rate of energy loss (e.g., MeV/cm) depends on the velocity and charge of the particle, as well as on the atomic number of the atom. Many important detectors of high-energy particles use these properties of the energy loss mechanism to help identify the velocity and mass of the particles. In a similar way the absorption and scattering of photons depend on both the photon energy and the atomic number Z of the material. Experimental particle physics relies strongly on these ways in which energetic particles interact with atoms. Carefully chosen atoms also serve as minilaboratories for the study of the nonconservation of parity and of time reversal.

Atomlike systems can be formed by a variety of combinations of oppositely charged particles. Such systems obey the same laws of quantum mechanics as ordinary atoms and thus have very similar atomic properties, appropriately scaled by charge and mass. Positronium is an atom composed of an electron and its antiparticle, a positron. Muonic atoms (a negative muon and a nucleus) have been useful in measuring the charge distribution in the nucleus. Pionic, kaonic, antiprotonic, etc., atoms allow study of the additional complications of the strong interaction; the combination μ+e- has been studied. Exotic atoms is a general name used to describe all these systems.

The idea that matter consists of small, indivisible objects, moving in otherwise empty space, is thought to have arisen in Greece during the period from 480 to 400 b.c.e. The objects were called atoms (in Greek,ατομοσ, uncuttable), and the earliest writings on them come from Democritus. According to his version, atoms were small but solid, and varied in shape and size. He thought everything was composed of atoms and void, and the properties of materials resulted from the arrangements of the atoms as well as their nature.

In the years around 1800 the concept of chemical elements became firmer. In the early 1800s John Dalton took the approximately integer ratios of combining volumes (of gases) and of combining weights (of condensed matter) to indicate that each chemical element was composed of atoms specific to that element and that all the atoms of an element were essentially the same. Also during the 1800s advances in the molecular picture of gases, especially the kinetic theory of gases, gave additional evidence that matter was composed of small units and even gave rough estimates of the sizes of these units (atoms, molecules).

H. A. Lorentz's interpretation of the Zeeman effect in 1896 strongly indicated that what were later called electrons were constituents of atoms, an idea that several physicists, especially J. J. Thomson, placed on a secure experimental foundation in 1897. A more definite picture of the positively charged part of the atom came with the discovery of the nucleus by Ernest Rutherford and his students in the years 1911 through 1913. Niels Bohr then pictured the atom as having a nucleus surrounded by electrons moving around it with motions like those of planets around a sun. His explanation had puzzling aspects (and the idea of definite orbits was in most respects misleading), but it accounted with amazing precision for many features of atomic hydrogen and qualitatively for observations of other elements.

The structure of the atom became much better understood with the discovery of quantum mechanics by Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and others during 1925 and1926. According to Schrödinger, electrons are described by wave functions (complex-number functions of position) from which the measurable properties of the atom can be calculated. For example, the absolute value squared of an electron wave function gives the distribution in space of that electron. Electrons are pointlike, as far as is known, but they have an intrinsic angular momentum, or spin, whose magnitude is ħ/2, and whose projection on any spatial direction must equal either +ħ/2 or - ħ/2. All electrons are alike, indistinguishable from each other, except as they differ in their projection of angular momentum. Electron spin was discovered by Samuel Goudsmit and George Uhlenbeck in 1925.

An essential feature of the structure of atoms is that electrons obey the symmetry and statistical relations described by Enrico Fermi and Paul Dirac. As Wolfgang Pauli showed in 1926, the wave function of a two-electron combination must change sign if the coordinates of the electrons are interchanged. An important result is that two electrons of the same spin direction can never occupy the same position in space or have the same wave function. It is this fact, that electrons are Fermi-Dirac particles, that keeps atoms from falling into a state where all the electrons are in the same innermost orbital; the result is that atoms of all elements have radii falling within a limited range, rather than increasing with atomic number as Z2.

The original quantum mechanics was not consistent with the requirements of relativity, but an appropriate relativistic wave equation was found by Dirac in 1927. There were still difficulties with a relativistic description of the coupling of electrons to radiation fields, but these were overcome during the period of 1946 to 1948, leading to a fully relativistic quantum electrodynamics (QED). QED allows many properties of simple atoms to be correctly calculated to a very high degree of precision.

The mid-1800s through the 1930s was a golden age for the exploration of atomic structure. Optical and X-ray spectroscopic work was intimately linked to the understanding of chemical properties, the periodic table, and the assignment of Z values. Series of spectral lines, fine structure, multiplicity, and intensity patterns all played important roles in the development of a theoretical picture of the microscopic world. Atomic spectroscopy became a widely used tool in practical applications and in other developing areas of physics. Especially important was the strong relationship developed by Henry Rowland, Henry Norris Russell, and others between laboratory spectroscopy and the spectra of the stars, which was responsible for great advances in astrophysics as well as in atomic physics and particle physics. The application of the laser to atomic spectroscopy, starting in the 1970s, has perhaps led to a new golden age of the atom.

Matter is made of atoms. Atoms are made of nuclei and electrons. Nuclei are made of nucleons (protons and neutrons). Nucleons, and other strongly interacting particles, are made of quarks. Searching for the structure of a physical system—looking for the units it is made of and how they are combined—has been one of the major themes of modern physics.

See also:Electron, Discovery of; Neutrino, Discovery of; Neutron, Discovery of; Positron, Discovery of; Quarks, Discovery of; Radioactivity, Discovery of


Boorse, H. A., and Motz, L., eds. The World of the Atom, 2 vols. (Basic Books, New York, 1966).

Drake, G. W. F., ed. Atomic, Molecular, & Optical Physics Handbook (AIP Press, Woodbury, NY, 1996).

Ketterle, W. "Experimental Studies of Bose-Einstein Condensation." Physics Today 30–35 (December 1999).

Wieman, C. E.; Pritchard, D. E.; and Wineland, D. J. "Atom Cooling, Trapping, and Quantum Manipulation." Reviews of Modern Physics71 , S253–S262 (1999).

Guy T. Emery


views updated May 29 2018


Atoms and the subatomic particles that comprise them, are the elementary building blocks of material substances. Although the term atom, derived from the Greek word atomos, meaning indivisible, would seem inappropriate for an entity that, as science has established, is divisible, the word atom still makes sense, because, depending on the context, atoms can still be regarded as indivisible. Namely, once the nucleus is split, the atom loses its identity and subatomic particles. Protons, electrons, neutrons, are all the sameregardless of the type of atom or elementit is only their numbers and unique combinations that make for different atoms. Accordingly, an atom is the smallest particle of an element.

Atoms share many characteristics with other material objects: they can be measured, and they also have mass and weight. Because traditional methods of measuring are difficult to use for atoms and subatomic particles, scientists have created a new unit, the atomic mass unit (amu), which is defined as the one-twelfth of the mass of the average carbon atom.

The principal subatomic particles are the protons, neutrons, and the electrons. The nucleus, the atom's core, consists of protons, which are positively charged particles, and neutrons, particles without any charge. Electrons are negatively charged particles with negligible mass that orbit around the nucleus. An electron's mass is so small that it is usually given a 0 amu value in atomic mass units, compared to the value of 1 amu assigned to neutrons and protons (neutrons do carry slightly more mass than protons and neither exactly equals 1 amubut for purposes of this article the approximate values will suffice). In fact, as the nucleus represents more than 99% of an atom's mass, it is interesting to note that an atom is mostly space . For example, if a hydrogen atom's nucleus were enlarged to the size of a marble , the atom's diameter (to the electron orbit) would be around 0.5 mi (800 m).

At one time, scientists asserted that electrons circled around the nucleus in planet-like orbits. However, because all subatomic particles, including electrons, exhibit wave-like properties, it is makes no sense to conceptualize the movement of electrons as like planetary rotation . Scientists therefore prefer terms like "electron cloud patterns," or "shells," indicating an electron's position and/or pattern of movement in relation to the nucleus. Thus, for example, hydrogen has one electron in its innermost, lowest energy shell (a shell is also an energy level); lithiumwith three electronshas two shells, with inner most, lowest energy shell contains two electrons that one electron exists in a more distant shell or higher potential energy level. The elements exhibit four distinctive shapes of shelldesignated s, p, d, and f orbitals.

While subatomic particles are generic and interchangeable, in combination they determine an atom's identity. For example, we know that an atom with a nucleus consisting of one proton must be hydrogen (H). An atom with two protons is always a helium (He) atom. Thus, we see that the key to an atom's identity is to be found in the atom's inner structure. In addition, a electrically balanced chemical element is an instance of atomic electronic equilibrium: for example, in an electrically balanced chemical element, the number of positively charged particles (protons) always equals the number of negatively charged particles (electrons). A loss or gain of electrons results in a net charge and the atom becomes an ion.

Although the number of protons determines the name (type) of atom, each atom may be heavier or lighter depending on the number of neutrons present. Atoms of the same element with different mass (reflecting differing numbers of neutrons) are isotopes.

Research into the atom's nucleus has uncovered a variety of subatomic particles, including quarks and gluons. Considered by some researchers the true building blocks of matter, quarks are the particles that form protons and neutrons. Gluons hold smaller clusters of quarks together.

The atom is best characterized by the laws and terminology or quantum physics . On a larger scale, chemists study reactions, the behavior of elements in interaction, and reactions, such as those leading to the formation of chemical compounds. Such reactions involve the transfer of electrons and/or the sharing of electrons in atomic bonds.

For example, the formation of sodium chloride, also known as table salt, would be impossible without specific changes at a subatomic level. The genesis of sodium chloride (NaCl) starts when a sodium (Na) atom, which has 11 electrons, loses an electron. With 10 electrons, the atom now has one more proton than electrons and thus becomes a net positively charged sodium ion Na+ (a positively charged ion is also known as a cation. Chlorine becomes a negatively charged anion by accepting a free electron to take on a net negative charge. The newly acquired electron goes into the outer shell, also known as the valence shell that already contains seven electrons. The addition of the eighth electron to the chlorine atom's outmost shell fulfills the octet rule and allows the atomalthough now a negatively charged chlorine ion (Cl)to be more stable. The electrical attraction of the sodium cations for the chlorine anion results in an ionic bond to form salt. Crystals of table salt consist of equal numbers of sodium cations and chlorine anions, cation-anion pairs being held together by a force of electrical attraction.

The octet rule is used to describe the attraction of elements toward having, whenever possible, eight valence-shell electrons (four electron pairs) in their outer shell. Because a full outer shell with eight electrons is relatively stable, many atoms lose or gain electrons to obtain an electron configuration like that of the nearest noble gas. Except for helium (with a filled 1s shell), noble gases have eight electrons in their valence shells.

Interestingly, not long after scientists realized that at the level of the nucleus an atom is divisible, transmutation, or the old alchemic dream of turning one substance into another, became a reality. Fission and fusion are tranformative processes that, by altering the nucleus, alter the element. For example, scientists even succeeded in creating gold by bombarding platinum-198 with neutrons to create platinum-199 that then decays to gold-199. Although clearly demonstrating the reality of transmutation, this particular transmutation (a change in the nuclear structure that changes one element into another) is by no means an easy or cheap method of producing gold. Quite the contrary, because platinum, particularly the platinum-199 isotope, is more expensive than gold produced. Regardless, the symbolic value of the experiment is immense, as it shows that the idea, developed by ancient alchemists and philosophers, of material transmutationaccomplished at the nuclear leveldoes not essentially contradict our understanding of the atom.

Natural transformations also existas with the decay of Carbon-14 to nitrogenaccomplished by the nuclear transformation of one Carbon-14 neutron into a proton.

See also Atomic mass and weight; Atomic number; Atomic theory; Chemical bonds and physical properties; Chemical elements


views updated May 17 2018


Atoms are the smallest particles of matter that have distinct physical and chemical properties. The different types of atoms are called elements; each element is denoted by an atomic weight and an atomic symbol. There are about a hundred stable elements, and out of these all the substances in the universe are built. Since the modern atomic theory was first proposed in the early nineteenth century, scientists have also discovered a large number of subatomic particles.

The development of the atomic theory traces its history to early human civilization. To these people, change was a concept to ponder. Ancient Greek philosophers tried to explain the causes of chemical changes in their environment; they proposed a variety of ideas about the nature of matter. By 400 BC, it was believed that all matter was made up of four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. At around this time, Democritus proposed the idea of matter being made up of small, indivisible particles. He called these particles atomos, or atoms. While Democritus may have suggested the theory of atoms, the Greeks had no experimental method for testing his theory.

An experimental method was suggested by Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century. At this time, he advanced the idea that matter existed as elements that could not be broken down further. Scientists built on Boyles ideas, and, in the early nineteenth century, John Dalton proposed the atomic theory. Daltons theory had four primary postulates. First, he suggested that all elements are made up of tiny particles called atoms. Second, all atoms of the same element are identical. Atoms of different elements are different in some fundamental way. Third, chemical compounds are formed when atoms from different elements combine with each other. Finally, chemical reactions involve the reorganization of the way atoms are bound. Atoms themselves do not change.

Using Daltons theory, scientists investigated the atoms more closely to determine their structures. The first subatomic particle was discovered by J. J. Thomson (18561940) in the late nineteenth century. Using a cathode ray tube, he discovered negatively charged particles called electrons. Around the same time, scientists began to find that certain atoms produced radioactivity. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford (18711937) proposed the idea that atoms have a nucleus around which electrons orbit. This led to the discovery of positively charged protons and neutral particles called neutrons.

Over time, scientists developed a chart known as the periodic table of elements to list all known elements. Atoms on this chart are symbolized by abbreviations called the atomic symbol. For example, oxygen atoms are denoted by the letter O. Each atom also has a unique mass denoted by its atomic weight. The atomic number, denoting the number of protons in the nucleus, is also distinct to each type of atom.

While atoms generally contain the same number of protons as neutrons, this is not always the case. Atoms with more or less neutrons than protons are known as isotopes. For example, carbon atoms can have 12, 13, or 14 neutrons. When a nucleus has too many neutrons, as in the case of carbon-14, it is unstable and gives off radiation, which can be measured. Radioactive isotopes have found many useful applications in biology. Scientists have used them in radioactive dating to determine the age of fossils. They have also used them as tracer atoms to follow a chemical as it goes through metabolic processes in an organism. This has made them an important tool in medicine.

Scientists have produced a number of artificial elements in the laboratory. These elements are too unstable to exist for more than a fraction of a second. In 2006, a team of Russian and American scientists claimed to have briefly created atoms of element 118 (118 protons plus a similar number of neutrons). An atom of element 118 lasts for only about one 1,000th of a second before breaking up spontaneously.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Atoms are the smallest particles of matter that have distinct physical and chemical properties. Each different type of atom makes up an element which is characterized by an atomic weight and an atomic symbol. Since the atomic theory was first proposed in the early nineteenth century, scientists have discovered a number of subatomic particles .

The development of the atomic theory traces its history to early human civilizations. To these people, change was a concept to ponder. Ancient Greek philosophers tried to explain the causes of changes in their environment, typically, chemical changes. This led them to propose a variety to ideas about the nature of matter. By 400 b.c., it was believed that all matter was made up of four elements including earth, fire, air and water . At around this time, Democritus proposed the idea of matter being made up of small indivisible particles. He called these particles atomos, or atoms. While Democritus may have suggested the theory of atoms, the Greeks had no experimental method for testing his theory.

This experimental method was suggested by Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century. At this time, he advanced the idea that matter existed as elements which could not be broken down further. Scientists built on Boyle's ideas, and in the early nineteenth century, John Dalton proposed the atomic theory.

Dalton's theory had four primary postulates. First, he suggested that all elements are made up of tiny particles called atoms. Second, all atoms of the same element are identical. Atoms of different elements are different in some fundamental way. Third, chemical compounds are formed when atoms from different elements combine with each other. Finally, chemical reactions involve the reorganization of the way atoms are bound. Atoms themselves do not change.

Using Dalton's theory, scientists investigated the atom more closely. They wanted to determine the structure of these atoms. The first subatomic particle was discovered by J. J. Thomson (1856-1940) in the late nineteenth century. Using a cathode ray tube he discovered negatively charged particles called electrons. Around this same time, scientists began to find that certain atoms produced radioactivity. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) proposed the idea that atoms had a nucleus which the electrons orbited around. This led to the discovery of positively charged protons and neutral particles called neutrons.

Over time, scientists developed a chart known as the periodic table of elements to list all known elements. Atoms on this chart are symbolized by abbreviations called the atomic symbol. For example, oxygen atoms are denoted by the letter O. Each atom also has a unique mass denoted by its atomic weight. The atomic number is also distinct to each type of atom denoting the number of protons in their nucleus.

While atoms generally contain the same number of protons as neutrons, this is not always the case. Atoms which have more or less neutrons than protons are known as isotopes. For example, carbon atoms can have 12, 13 or 14 neutrons. When a nucleus has too many neutrons, as in the case of carbon-14, it is unstable and gives off radiation which can be measured. Radioactive isotopes have found many useful applications in biology . Scientists have used them in radioactive dating to determine the age of fossils. They have also used them as tracer atoms to follow a chemical as it goes through metabolic processes in an organism . This has made them an important tool in medicine.


views updated May 21 2018

atom Smallest particle of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction, every element having its own characteristic atoms. The atom, once thought indivisible, consists of a central, positively charged nucleus orbited by negatively charged electrons, a balance that makes the atom neutral. The nucleus (identified in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford) is composed of tightly packed protons and neutrons. It occupies a small fraction of the atomic space but accounts for almost all of the mass of the atom. In 1913 Niels Bohr suggested that electrons moved in fixed orbits. The study of quantum mechanics modified the concept of orbits: the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to know the exact position and momentum of a subatomic particle. The number of electrons in an atom and their configuration determine its chemical properties. Adding or removing one or more electrons produces an ion. See also subatomic particles


views updated May 29 2018

at·om / ˈatəm/ • n. the basic unit of a chemical element. ∎  such particles as a source of nuclear energy: the power of the atom. ∎  an extremely small amount of a thing or quality: I shall not have one atom of strength left.


views updated May 29 2018

atom †body so small as to be incapable of division XVI; supposed ultimate particle of matter XVII; hence in mod. physics and chem. XIX. — (O)F. atome — L. atomus — Gr. átomos, sb. use of adj. ‘indivisible’, f. A-4 + *tom- (cf. -TOMY).
Hence atomic XVII. — modL.