Atomic Structure

Until the final years of the nineteenth century, the accepted model of the atom resembled that of a billiard ball - a small, solid sphere. In 1897, J. J. Thomson dramatically changed the modern view of the atom with his discovery of the electron. Thomson's work suggested that the atom was not an "indivisible" particle as John Dalton had suggested but, a jigsaw puzzle made of smaller pieces.

Thomson's Atomic Model and Discovery of Electron

Thomson Atomic ModelThomson's notion of the electron came from his work with a nineteenth century scientific curiosity: the cathode ray tube. For years scientists had known that if an electric current was passed through a vacuum tube, a stream of glowing material could be seen; however, no one could explain why. Thomson found that the mysterious glowing stream would bend toward a positively charged electric plate. Thomson theorized, and was later proven correct, that the stream was in fact made up of small particles, pieces of atoms that carried a negative charge. These particles were later named electrons.

After Eugen Goldstein’s 1886 discovery that atoms had positive charges, Thomson imagined that atoms looked like pieces of raisin bread, a structure in which clumps of small, negatively charged electrons (the "raisins") were scattered inside a smear of positive charges. In 1908, Ernest Rutherford, a former student of Thomson's, proved Thomson's raisin bread structure incorrect.

Rutherford's atomic model

Rutherford Atomic ModelRutherford performed a series of experiments with radioactive alpha particles. While it was unclear at the time what the alpha particle was, it was known to be very tiny. Rutherford fired tiny alpha particles at solid objects such as gold foil. He found that while most of the alpha particles passed right through the gold foil, a small number of alpha particles passed through at an angle (as if they had bumped up against something) and some bounced straight back like a tennis ball hitting a wall. Rutherford's experiments suggested that gold foil, and matter in general, had holes in it! These holes allowed most of the alpha particles to pass directly through, while a small number ricocheted off or bounced straight back because they hit a solid object.

In 1911, Rutherford proposed a revolutionary view of the atom. He suggested that the atom consisted of a small, dense core of positively charged particles in the center (or nucleus) of the atom, surrounded by a swirling ring of electrons. The nucleus was so dense that the alpha particles would bounce off of it, but the electrons were so tiny, and spread out at such great distances, that the alpha particles would pass right through this area of the atom. Rutherford's atom resembled a tiny solar system with the positively charged nucleus always at the center and the electrons revolving around the nucleus.

The positively charged particles in the nucleus of the atom were called protons. Protons carry an equal, but opposite, charge to electrons, but protons are much larger and heavier than electrons.

Bohr's Atomic Model

Rutherford planetary-model of an atom - electrons orbiting a solar nucleus – has a technical difficulty. The laws of classical mechanics predict that the electron will release electromagnetic radiation while orbiting a nucleus. Because the electron would lose energy, it would gradually spiral inwards, collapsing into the nucleus. This atom model is disastrous, because it predicts that all atoms are unstable.

Bhor Atomic ModelIn 1913 Niels Bohr came to work in the laboratory of Ernest Rutherford. Bohr thought about the problem with Rutherford's model and after some thought came up with the Bohr model of the atom. Bohr's model of the atom revolutionized atomic physics. The Bohr model consists of four principles:

  1. Electrons assume only certain orbits around the nucleus. These orbits are stable and called "stationary" orbits.
  2. Each orbit has an energy associated with it. For example the orbit closest to the nucleus has an energy E1, the next closest E2 and so on.
  3. Light is emitted when an electron jumps from a higher orbit to a lower orbit and absorbed when it jumps from a lower to higher orbit.
  4. The energy and frequency of light emitted or absorbed is given by the difference between the two orbit energies.

With these conditions Bohr was able to explain the stability of atoms. According to Bohr's model only certain orbits were allowed which means only certain energies are possible. Bohr's model was so successful that he immediately received world-wide fame.

Discovery of the neutron

In 1932, James Chadwick discovered a third type of subatomic particle, which he named the neutron. Neutrons help stabilize the protons in the atom's nucleus. Because the nucleus is so tightly packed together, the positively charged protons would tend to repel each other normally. Neutrons help to reduce the repulsion between protons and stabilize the atom's nucleus. Neutrons always reside in the nucleus of atoms and they are about the same size as protons. However, neutrons do not have any electrical charge; they are electrically neutral.

Atoms are electrically neutral because the number of protons (+ charges) is equal to the number of electrons (- charges) and thus the two cancel out. As the atom gets larger, the number of protons increases, and so does the number of electrons (in the neutral state of the atom).

Atomic weight (or relative atomic mass)

In the early twentieth century, up until the 1960s scientists tool 1/16th the mass of naturally occurring oxygen as the unit for atomic weight. However in 1961 atomic weight was defined as the ratio of the average mass of atoms of an element to 1/12 of the mass of an atom of carbon-12. 1/12 of the mass of an atom of carbon-12 is also known as unified atomic mass unit (u) or Dalton (Da).

Atomic Number

The number of protons of an atom is known as it atomic number.

Atomic Mass Number

The total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom is known as its atomic mass number.

Worksheets and in-class activities

Teaching and Learning aids

Assignments and Project ideas

Further reading