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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.4: Rutherford's Experiment- The Nuclear Model of the Atom

  • Page ID
    152150
  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe Thomson's "plum pudding" model of the atom and the evidence for it.
    • Describe Rutherford's gold foil experiment and explain how this experiment altered the "plum pudding" model.

    The electron was discovered by J.J. Thomson in 1897. The existence of protons was also known, as was the fact that atoms were neutral in charge. Since the intact atom had no net charge and the electron and proton had opposite charges, the next step after the discovery of subatomic particles was to figure out how these particles were arranged in the atom. This is a difficult task because of the incredibly small size of the atom. Therefore, scientists set out to design a model of what they believed the atom could look like. The goal of each atomic model was to accurately represent all of the experimental evidence about atoms in the simplest way possible.

    Following the discovery of the electron, J.J. Thomson developed what became known as the "plum pudding" model (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) in 1904. Plum pudding is an English dessert similar to a blueberry muffin. In Thomson's plum pudding model of the atom, the electrons were embedded in a uniform sphere of positive charge like blueberries stuck into a muffin. The positive matter was thought to be jelly-like or a thick soup. The electrons were somewhat mobile. As they got closer to the outer portion of the atom, the positive charge in the region was greater than the neighboring negative charges and the electron would be pulled back more toward the center region of the atom.

    In the plum pudding model, electrons are uniformly spread in a sphere of positive charge
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) The "plum pudding" model.

    However, this model of the atom soon gave way to a new model developed by New Zealander Ernest Rutherford (1871 - 1937) about five years later. Thomson did still receive many honors during his lifetime, including being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906 and a knighthood in 1908.

    Atoms and Gold

    In 1911, Rutherford and coworkers Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden initiated a series of groundbreaking experiments that would completely change the accepted model of the atom. They bombarded very thin sheets of gold foil with fast moving alpha particles.

    1AA.jpg

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) (a) The experimental setup for Rutherford's gold foil experiment: A radioactive element that emitted alpha particles was directed toward a thin sheet of gold foil that was surrounded by a screen which would allow detection of the deflected particles. (b) According to the plum pudding model (top) all of the alpha particles should have passed through the gold foil with little or no deflection. Rutherford found that a small percentage of alpha particles were deflected at large angles, which could be explained by an atom with a very small, dense, positively-charged nucleus at its center (bottom).

    According to the accepted atomic model, in which an atom's mass and charge are uniformly distributed throughout the atom, the scientists expected that all of the alpha particles would pass through the gold foil with only a slight deflection or none at all. Surprisingly, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) (while most of the alpha particles were indeed undeflected, a very small percentage (about 1 in 8000 particles) bounced off the gold foil at very large angles. Some were even redirected back toward the source. No prior knowledge had prepared them for this discovery. In a famous quote, Rutherford exclaimed that it was "as if you had fired a 15-inch [artillery] shell at a piece of tissue and it came back and hit you."

    Rutherford needed to come up with an entirely new model of the atom in order to explain his results. Because the vast majority of the alpha particles had passed through the gold, he reasoned that most of the atom was empty space. In contrast, the particles that were highly deflected must have experienced a tremendously powerful force within the atom. He concluded that all of the positive charge and the majority of the mass of the atom must be concentrated in a very small space in the atom's interior, which he called the nucleus. The nucleus is the tiny, dense, central core of the atom and is composed of protons and neutrons.

    Rutherford's atomic model became known as the nuclear model. In the nuclear atom, the protons and neutrons, which comprise nearly all of the mass of the atom, are located in the nucleus at the center of the atom. The electrons are distributed around the nucleus and occupy most of the volume of the atom. It is worth emphasizing just how small the nucleus is compared to the rest of the atom. If we could blow up an atom to be the size of a large professional football stadium, the nucleus would be about the size of a marble.

    Rutherford's model proved to be an important step towards a full understanding of the atom. However, it did not completely address the nature of the electrons and the way in which they occupied the vast space around the nucleus. For this and other insights, Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. Unfortunately, Rutherford would have preferred to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics because he considered physics superior to chemistry. In his opinion, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

    Summary

    • The plum pudding model is an early attempt to show what an atom looks like.
    • Bombardment of gold foil with alpha particles showed that some particles were deflected.
    • The nuclear model of the atom consists of a small and dense positively charged interior surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

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