How much space do bricks occupy?
As we look at the world around us, it looks pretty solid. We hit a wall with our hand and the hand stops – it does not (normally) go through the wall. We think of matter as occupying space. But there is a lot of empty space in matter. In fact, most of the matter is empty space.
The Gold Foil Experiment
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. Alpha particles, a type of natural radioactive particle, are positively charged particles with a mass about four times that of a hydrogen atom.
According to the accepted atomic model—in which an atom's mass and charge are uniformly distributed throughout the atom—the scientists hypothesized that all of the alpha particles would pass through the gold foil with only a slight deflection, or none at all. Surprisingly, while most of the alpha particles were indeed not deflected, 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. It was not until some years later that a full understanding of the electron was achieved. This proved to be the key to understanding the chemical properties of elements.
- Bombardment of gold foil with alpha particles showed that a very small percentage of alpha particles were deflected.
- The nuclear model of the atom consists of a small and dense positively charged interior surrounded by a cloud of electrons.
- What is an alpha particle?
- What did Rutherford observe from shooting thousands and thousands of alpha particles at a thin piece of gold foil?
- How did Rutherford explain the observation that most alpha particles went straight through the gold foil?
- What did he say about the particles that were deflected?
- Describe Rutherford’s nuclear model.