The Nuclear Atom

As stated above, we define the elements by their number of protons. We define the atomic number, Z, as the number of protons in an atom. For a neutral atom (not a charged ion), the number of electrons must equal the number of protons. However, the number of neutrons can vary within atoms of a given element.

Atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Most elements have multiple isotopes. For a given isotope, we define the mass number, A, as the atomic number plus the number of protons. We can write this as A = Z + N where A is mass number, Z is atomic number, and N is number of neutrons.

Read this section, which explains how we write atomic symbols with atomic numbers and mass numbers.

When we see the mass of an element on the periodic table, we are seeing the weighted average of the masses of all isotopes of that element. Then read the section "Isotopic Mixtures and Abundances" near the bottom of the page. This section describes how to determine the average atomic mass of an element if we know the isotope masses and their relative abundance. Try the practice problems to do these types of calculations yourself.

The precise physical nature of atoms finally emerged from a series of elegant experiments carried out between 1895 and 1915. The most notable of these achievements was Ernest Rutherford's famous 1911 alpha-ray scattering experiment, which established that:

Schematic diagram an atom with the nucleus and the electron cloud.

  • Almost all of the mass of an atom is contained within a tiny (and therefore extremely dense) nucleus which carries a positive electric charge whose value identifies each element and is known as the atomic number of the element.

  • Almost all of the volume of an atom consists of empty space in which electrons, the fundamental carriers of negative electric charge, reside.

The extremely small mass of the electron (1/1840 the mass of the hydrogen nucleus) causes it to behave as a quantum particle, which means that its location at any moment cannot be specified; the best we can do is describe its behavior in terms of the probability of its manifesting itself at any point in space. It is common (but somewhat misleading) to describe the volume of space in which the electrons of an atom have a significant probability of being found as the electron cloud. The latter has no definite outer boundary, so neither does the atom. The radius of an atom must be defined arbitrarily, such as the boundary in which the electron can be found with 95% probability. Atomic radii are typically 30-300 pm.

The Nucleus is Composed of Protons and Neutrons

The nucleus is itself composed of two kinds of particles. Protons are the carriers of positive electric charge in the nucleus; the proton charge is exactly the same as the electron charge, but of opposite sign. This means that in any [electrically neutral] atom, the number of protons in the nucleus (often referred to as the nuclear charge) is balanced by the same number of electrons outside the nucleus.

Because the electrons of an atom are in contact with the outside world, it is possible for one or more electrons to be lost, or some new ones to be added. The resulting electrically-charged atom is called an ion.

The other nuclear particle is the neutron. As its name implies, this particle carries no electrical charge. Its mass is almost the same as that of the proton. Most nuclei contain roughly equal numbers of neutrons and protons, so we can say that these two particles together account for almost all the mass of the atom.

The Atomic Number is the Nuclear Charge, and Thus the Number of Electrons in the Neutral Atom

What single parameter uniquely characterizes the atom of a given element? It is not the atom's relative mass, as we will see in the section on isotopes below. It is, rather, the number of protons in the nucleus, which we call the atomic number and denote by the symbol Z. Each proton carries an electric charge of +1, so the atomic number also specifies the electric charge of the nucleus. In the neutral atom, the Z protons within the nucleus are balanced by Z electrons outside it.

Photo of Henry Moseley in a chemistry lab.

Moseley searched for a measurable property of each element that increases linearly with atomic number. He found this in a class of X-rays emitted by an element when it is bombarded with electrons. The frequencies of these X-rays are unique to each element, and they increase uniformly in successive elements. Moseley found that the square roots of these frequencies give a straight line when plotted against Z; this enabled him to sort the elements in order of increasing atomic number.

Atomic numbers were first worked out in 1913 by Henry Moseley, a young member of Rutherford's research group in Manchester.

You can think of the atomic number as a kind of serial number of an element, commencing at 1 for hydrogen and increasing by one for each successive element. The chemical name of the element and its symbol are uniquely tied to the atomic number; thus the symbol "Sr" stands for strontium, whose atoms all have Z = 38.

Mass Number

This is just the sum of the numbers of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. It is sometimes represented by the symbol A, so

A = Z + N

in which Z is the atomic number and N is the neutron number.

Nuclides and Their Symbols

Image of the element magnesium.

The term nuclide simply refers to any particular kind of nucleus. For example, a nucleus of atomic number 7 is a nuclide of nitrogen. Any nuclide is characterized by the pair of numbers (Z ,A). The element symbol depends on Z alone, so the symbol 26Mg is used to specify the mass-26 nuclide of manganese, whose name implies Z=12. A more explicit way of denoting a particular kind of nucleus is to add the atomic number as a subscript. Of course, this is somewhat redundant, since the symbol Mg always implies Z=12.

Isotopes are Nuclides Having the Same Atomic Number

Isotopes of the first ten elements and their mass numbers.

Two nuclides of the same element (and thus with identical atomic numbers) but different neutron numbers (and therefore different mass numbers) are known as isotopes. Most elements occur in nature as mixtures of isotopes, but twenty-three of them (including beryllium and fluorine, shown in the table) are monoisotopic. For example, there are three natural isotopes of magnesium: 24Mg (79% of all Mg atoms), 25Mg (10%), and 26Mg (11%); all three are present in all compounds of magnesium in about these same proportions.

Approximately 290 isotopes occur in nature.

The two heavy isotopes of hydrogen are especially important – so much so that they have names and symbols of their own:

Names and formulas of the hydrogen isotopes

Deuterium accounts for only about 15 out of every one million atoms of hydrogen. Tritium, which is radioactive, is even less abundant. All the tritium on the earth is a by-product of the decay of other radioactive elements.

Source: Stephen Lower,
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Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2021, 1:59 PM