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Chemistry LibreTexts

9.5: The Quantum-Mechanical Model: Atoms with Orbitals

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Define quantum mechanics
    • Differentiate between an orbit and an orbital.

    How do you study something that seemingly makes no sense? We talk about electrons being in orbits and it sounds like we can tell where that electron is at any moment. We can draw pictures of electrons in orbit, but the reality is that we just don't know exactly where they are. We are going to take a quick look at an area of science that even leaves scientists puzzled. When asked about quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr (who proposed the Bohr model of the atom) said: "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it". Richard Feynman (one of the founders of modern quantum theory) stated: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum theory". So, let's take a short trip into a land that challenges our everyday world.

    Quantum Mechanics 

    The study of motion of large objects such as baseballs is called mechanics, or more specifically classical mechanics. Because the quantum nature of the electron and other tiny particles moving at high speeds, classical mechanics is inadequate to accurately describe their motion. Quantum mechanics is the study of the motion of objects that are atomic or subatomic in size and thus demonstrate wave-particle duality. In classical mechanics, the size and mass of the objects involved effectively obscures any quantum effects so that such objects appear to gain or lose energies in any amounts. Particles whose motion is described by quantum mechanics gain or lose energy in the small pieces called quanta.

    One of the fundamental (and hardest to understand) principles of quantum mechanics is that the electron is both a particles and a wave. In the everyday macroscopic world of things we can see, something cannot be both. But this duality can exist in the quantum world of the submicroscopic at the atomic scale.

    At the heart of quantum mechanics is the idea that we cannot specify accurately the location of an electron. All we can say is that there is a probability that it exists within this certain volume of space. The scientist Erwin Schrödinger developed an equation that deals with these calculations, which we will not pursue at this time.

    Erwin Schrödinger.

    Recall that in the Bohr model, the exact path of the electron was restricted to very well-defined circular orbits around the nucleus.   An orbital is the quantum mechanical refinement of Bohr’s orbit. In contrast to his concept of a simple circular orbit with a fixed radius, orbitals are mathematically derived regions of space with different probabilities of having an electron.


    Quantum mechanics involves the study of material at the atomic level. This field deals with probabilities since we cannot definitely locate a particle. Orbitals are mathematically derived regions of space with different probabilities of having an electron.