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Chemistry LibreTexts

2.2: Atomic Theory

Skills to Develop

  • Explain how all matter is composed of atoms.
  • Describe the modern atomic theory.

Take some aluminum foil. Cut it in half. Now you have two smaller pieces of aluminum foil. Cut one of the pieces in half again. Cut one of those smaller pieces in half again. Continue cutting, making smaller and smaller pieces of aluminum foil.

It should be obvious that the pieces are still aluminum foil; they are just becoming smaller and smaller. But how far can you take this exercise, at least in theory? Can you continue cutting the aluminum foil into halves forever, making smaller and smaller pieces? Or is there some limit, some absolute smallest piece of aluminum foil? (Thought experiments like this—and the conclusions based on them—were debated as far back as the fifth century BC.)

The modern atomic theory, proposed about 1803 by the English chemist John Dalton (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)), is a fundamental concept that states that all elements are composed of atoms. Previously, we defined an atom as the smallest part of an element that maintains the identity of that element. Individual atoms are extremely small; even the largest atom has an approximate diameter of only 5.4 × 10−10 m. With that size, it takes over 18 million of these atoms, lined up side by side, to equal the width of your little finger (about 1 cm).

2.2.jpg

Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) John Dalton was an English scientist who enunciated the modern atomic theory.

Most elements in their pure form exist as individual atoms. For example, a macroscopic chunk of iron metal is composed, microscopically, of individual atoms. Some elements, however, exist as groups of atoms called molecules. Several important elements exist as two-atom combinations and are called diatomic molecules. In representing a diatomic molecule, we use the symbol of the element and include the subscript 2 to indicate that two atoms of that element are joined together. The elements that exist as diatomic molecules are hydrogen (H2), oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), fluorine (F2), chlorine (Cl2), bromine (Br2), and iodine (I2).

Looking Closer: Atomic Theory

Dalton’s ideas are called the modern atomic theory because the concept of atoms is very old. The Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus originally introduced atomic concepts in the fifth century BC. (The word atom comes from the Greek word atomos, which means “indivisible” or “uncuttable.”) Dalton had something that the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t have, however; he had experimental evidence, such as the formulas of simple chemicals and the behavior of gases. In the 150 years or so before Dalton, natural philosophy had been maturing into modern science, and the scientific method was being used to study nature. So when Dalton announced a modern atomic theory, he was proposing a fundamental theory to describe many previous observations of the natural world; he was not just participating in a philosophical discussion.

Concept Review Exercises

  1. What is the modern atomic theory?
  2. What are atoms?

Answers

  1. The modern atomic theory states that all matter is composed of atoms.
  2. Atoms are the smallest parts of an element that maintain the identity of that element.

Key Takeaways

  • Atoms are the ultimate building blocks of all matter.
  • The modern atomic theory establishes the concepts of atoms and how they compose matter.

Contributors

  • Anonymous