Atoms an Overview

Atoms are composed of three basic subatomic particles. The proton, neutron, and electron. I think of etymology when I have to learn new science terms. The etymology of proton is like “pro” or “for”, like if you’re “pro” on a political issue than you are having a positive attitude about it. The proton is a positively charged particle.

The neutron is a neutral particle, as you may have guessed. It is neutral because it has no electrical charge. Scientists classify particles based on their charge because it is such an important protperty of a particle and determines its interactions with other particles. Particles with opposite charges will be attracted to each other while particles with the same charge will not. That’s why it’s important to know the charge of a particle.

The electron is negatively charged, and the etymology is a little more difficult to rationalize here. I guess you’d be feeling pretty negative if you got zapped with electricity, wouldn’t you? I sure would. So it kind of makes sense that electrons are negative.

The original thought about atoms was that all the particles sort of stuck together in a matrix. This was called the plumb pudding model. Experiments with gold foil showed that this model is not correct, and people redefined the paradigm, making it into a cloud of electrons surrounding the atom in orbitals.

An orbital is a region of electron density described by a probabllity density function. It can only be described stochastically because the electrons move to fast to be located. In fact, the uncertainty principle says you cannot know the position and velocity of an electron at the same time. That’s why we describe them using the math of uncertainty.

Atoms for bonds that can be called ionic or covalent. Ionic bonds are formed when one atom gives an electron to another. Covalent bonds are formed when atoms share electrons. Ionic bonds are usually between a metal and a nonmetal. Covalent bonds are usually between nonmetals. Metallic bonds are different, and involve all the electrons in a sample interacting as a “sea of electrons”.

The arrangements of atoms into molecules is the heart of the science of chemistry. Understanding that will take years of study, but having a grasp of the basics can help explain the world around us in a more precise way. Everyone can benefit from understanding atoms.