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1.14: The Nuclear Atom

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    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the history of the atom. 
    • Draw a diagram of a model of the atom and label the nucleus and the electron cloud.

    The history of the atom begins before 1800, where an atom was thought to be the smallest piece of matter. The first scientist to provide a theory about the atom was John Dalton. His atomic theory held up well to a lot of the different chemical experiments that scientists performed to test it. The following statements support Dalton's Atomic Theory.

    • All matter is composed of extremely small particles called atoms.
    • Atoms of a given element are identical in size, mass, and other properties. Atoms of different elements differ in size, mass, and other properties.
    • Atoms cannot be subdivided, created, or destroyed.
    • Atoms of different elements can combine in simple whole number ratios to form chemical compounds.
    • In chemical reactions, atoms are combined, separated, or rearranged

    In fact, for almost 100 years, it seemed as if Dalton's Atomic Theory was the whole truth. However, in 1897, a scientist named J. J. Thomson conducted some research that suggested that Dalton's Atomic Theory was not the entire story. He suggested that the small, negatively charged particles making up the cathode ray were actually pieces of atoms. He called these pieces "corpuscles," although today we know them as electrons. Thanks to his clever experiments and careful reasoning, J. J. Thomson is credited with the discovery of the electron.

    History and why models are important 

    Below is a timeline of the understanding of the atom. If you read through the first four models, you will see they will have a reason why that specific model did not work. The only model that is acceptable today is the quantum model that was devised by Erwin Schrodinger. The nuclear contains the protons and neutrons (that is evidence in the three models (nuclear, planetary and quantum). In all three models you can see that electrons are all outside of the nucleus. However, the nuclear model and planetary (Bohr) do not show an accurate depiction of where electrons are in the atom. The quantum model is appropriate because Schrondinger shows that electrons exist in the in clouds of probability rather than exact levels. Quantum chemistry is not discussed in this course, but it helps to describe the placement of electrons. Electrons can exist as a particle or wave (discussed in Module 2), this means that they aren't sitting levels of an electron. 

    The-History-of-the-Atom-–-Theories-and-Models.png                                                                    Figure 1. The history of the atom  (CC BY-NC-ND,


    Discovery of the Electron

    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 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 \(\PageIndex{2}\): 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.

    Discovery of the Nucleus

    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.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): (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 (Quantum 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, 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.

    The Best Model

    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. Niels Bohr later modified the nuclear model to show electrons in concentric circles that showed that electrons could move between energy levels known as the Bohr Model. However, this model still did not address the full nature of electrons. Today, we understand the atom in a quantum mechanical way. The quantum model is the most appropriate description of the atom. There is a nucleus, and electrons are found in specific areas of the electron cloud outside of the nucleus. The quantum model has provided us a better understanding to the chemical properties of elements.

    Atomic Nucleus

    The nucleus (plural, nuclei) is a positively charged region at the center of the atom. It consists of two types of subatomic particles packed tightly together. The particles are protons, which have a positive electric charge, and neutrons, which are neutral in electric charge. Outside of the nucleus, an atom is mostly empty space, with orbiting negative particles called electrons whizzing through it. The figure below shows these parts of the atom.

    Nuclear atom diagram with nucleus in center and surrounding cloud of electrons
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The nuclear atom

    The nucleus of the atom is extremely small. Its radius is only about 1/100,000 of the total radius of the atom. If an atom were the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would be about the size of a pea! Electrons have virtually no mass, but protons and neutrons have a lot of mass for their size. As a result, the nucleus has virtually all the mass of an atom. Given its great mass and tiny size, the nucleus is very dense. If an object the size of a penny had the same density as the nucleus of an atom, its mass would be greater than 30 million tons!

    Holding It All Together

    Particles with opposite electric charges attract each other. This explains why negative electrons orbit the positive nucleus. Particles with the same electric charge repel each other. This means that the positive protons in the nucleus push apart from one another. So why doesn't the nucleus fly apart? An even stronger force - called the strong nuclear force - holds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus.


    • Atoms are the ultimate building blocks of all matter.
    • The modern atomic theory establishes the concepts of atoms and how they compose matter.
    • Bombardment of gold foil with alpha particles showed that some particles were deflected.
    • The most appropriate model of the atom consists of a small and dense positively charged interior surrounded by a cloud of electrons known as the quantum model. 

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