T5740 Atom

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In his highly readable ‘Six Easy Pieces', a work that includes considerable discussion of chemistry as well as physics, the great American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) asked, "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?" The answer he gave was this: "I believe it is the atomic hypothesis or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it that all things are made of atoms, little articles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied."

Indeed, what Feynman called the "atomic hypothesis" is one of the most important keys to understanding both physical and chemical changes. The behavior of particles at the atomic level has a defining role in the shape of the world studied by the sciences, and an awareness of this behavior makes it easier to understand physical processes, such as changes of state between solid, liquid, and gas; chemical processes, such as the formation of new compounds; and other processes, such as the conversion of matter to energy, which involve both physical and chemical changes. Only when one comprehends the atomic structure of matter is it possible to move on to the chemical elements that are the most basic materials of chemistry.

As Feynman went on to note, atoms are so tiny that if an apple were magnified to the size of Earth, the atoms in it would each be about the size of a regular apple.

Clearly, atoms and other atomic particles are far too small to be glimpsed even by the most highly powered optical microscope. Yet physicists and other scientists are able to study the behavior of atoms, and by doing so, they are able to form a picture of what occurs at the atomic level. An atom is the fundamental particle in a chemical element. The atom is not, however, the smallest particle in the universe: atoms are composed of subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. These are distinguished from one another in terms of electric charge: as with the north and south poles of magnets, positive and negative charges attract one another, but like charges repel. In fact, magnetism is simply a manifestation of a larger electromagnetic force that encompasses both electricity and magnetism.

Clustered at the center, or nucleus, of the atom are protons, which are positively charged, and neutrons, which exert no charge. Spinning around the nucleus are electrons, which exert a negative charge. The vast majority of the atom's mass is made up by the protons and neutrons, which have approximately the same mass; that of the electron is much smaller. If an electron had a mass of 1, not a unit, but simply a figure used for comparison, the mass of the proton would be 1,836, and of the neutron 1,839.

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. Two atoms may have the same number of protons, and thus be of the same element, yet differ in their number of neutrons. Such atoms are called isotopes. The number of electrons is usually the same as the number of protons, and thus atoms have a neutral charge. In certain situations, however, the atom may lose or gain one or more electrons and acquire a net charge, becoming an ion. But electric charge, like energy, is conserved, and the electrons are not "lost" when an atom becomes an ion: they simply go elsewhere.

It is useful, though far from precise, to compare the interior of an atom to a planet spinning very quickly around a sun. If the nucleus were our own Sun, then the electrons spinning at the edge of the atom would be on an orbit somewhere beyond Mars: in other words, the ratio between the size of the nucleus and the furthest edge of the atom is like that between the Sun's diameter and an orbital path about 80 million miles beyond Mars.

One of many differences between an atom and a solar system, however, is the fact that the electrons are spinning around the nucleus at a relative rate of motion much, much greater than any planet is revolving around the Sun. Furthermore, it is not the gravitational force what holds the atom together, as happens in the Solar System, but it is electromagnetic force that holds them together. A final and critical difference is the fact that electrons move in much more complex orbital patterns than the elliptical paths that planets make in their movement around the Sun.

About the Author

Dr. Badruddin Khan teaches Chemistry in the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, India.

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