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Atomic and Nuclear Structure

The atom consists of a small but massive nucleus surrounded by a cloud of rapidly moving electrons. The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons. The total number of protons in the nucleus is called the atom’s atomic number. It is given the symbol Z. Therefore, the total electrical charge of the nucleus is +Ze, where e (elementary charge) equals 1,602 x 10-19 coulombs. In a neutral atom, there are as many electrons as protons moving about the nucleus. It is the electrons responsible for the chemical behavior of atoms and which identify the various chemical elements.

Notation of nuclei
Notation of nuclei
Source: chemwiki.ucdavis.edu

Hydrogen (H), for example, consists of one electron and one proton. The number of neutrons in a nucleus is known as the neutron number and is given the symbol N. The total number of nucleons, protons, and neutrons in a nucleus are equal to Z + N = A, where A is called the atomic mass number. The various species of atoms whose nuclei contain particular numbers of protons and neutrons are called nuclides. Each nuclide is denoted by the element’s chemical symbol (this specifies Z) with the atomic mass number as superscript.

Thus the symbol 1H refers to the nuclide of hydrogen with a single proton as a nucleus. 2H is the hydrogen nuclide with a neutron and a proton in the nucleus (2H is also called deuterium or heavy hydrogen). Atoms such as 1H, 2H whose nuclei contain the same number of protons but the different number of neutrons (different A), are known as isotopes. Uranium, for instance, has three isotopes occurring in nature – 238U235U, and234U. The stable isotopes (plus a few of the unstable isotopes) are the atoms found in the naturally occurring elements in nature. However, they are not found in equal amounts. Some isotopes of a given element are more abundant than others. For example, 99,27% of naturally occurring uranium atoms are the isotope 238U, 0,72% are the isotope 235U, and 0,0055% are the isotope 234U. The exact structure of atoms is described by Atomic Theory and the Theory of Nuclear Structure.

Volume of an Atom and Nucleus
Structure of Matter.
Structure of Matter.

The atom consists of a small but massive nucleus surrounded by a cloud of rapidly moving electrons. The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons. Typical nuclear radii are of the order 10−14 m. Assuming spherical shape, nuclear radii can be calculated according to the following formula:

r = r0 . A1/3

where r0 = 1.2 x 10-15 m = 1.2 fm

If we use this approximation, we, therefore, expect the volume of the nucleus to be of the order of 4/3πr3 or 7,23 ×10−45 m3 for hydrogen nuclei or 1721×10−45 m3 for 238U nuclei. These are volumes of nuclei, and atomic nuclei (protons and neutrons) contain about 99.95% of the atom’s mass.

Is an atom an empty space?
A figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom with the electron cloud in shades of gray. Protons and neutrons are most likely found in exactly the same space, at the central point. Source wikipedia.org License CC BY-SA 3.0

The volume of an atom is about 15 orders of magnitude larger than the volume of a nucleus. For uranium atom, the Van der Waals radius is about 186 pm = 1.86 ×10−10 m. The Van der Waals radius, rw, of an atom is the radius of an imaginary hard-sphere representing the distance of closest approach for another atom.  Assuming spherical shape, the uranium atom has a volume of about  26.9 ×10−30 m3. But this “huge” space is occupied primarily by electrons because the nucleus occupies only about 1721×10−45 m3 of space. These electrons together weigh only a fraction (let say 0.05%) of the entire atom.

It may seem that the space and, in fact, the matter is empty, but it is not. Due to the quantum nature of electrons, the electrons are not pointing to particles. They are smeared out over the whole atom. The classical description cannot be used to describe things on the atomic scale. On the atomic scale, physicists have found that quantum mechanics describes things very well on that scale. Particle locations in quantum mechanics are not at an exact position, and a probability density function describes them. Therefore the space in an atom (between electrons and an atomic nucleus) is not empty. Still, it is filled by a probability density function of electrons (usually known as  “electron cloud“).

  • Atomic Theory. Atomic theory is a scientific theory of the nature of matter, which states that matter is composed of discrete units called atoms. The word atom comes from the Ancient Greek adjective atomos, meaning “uncuttable”. Today it is known that also atoms are divisible. Atomic Theory consists of many models and discoveries, which gradually formed this theory.
  • Theory of Nuclear Structure. Understanding the structure of the atomic nucleus is one of the central challenges in modern nuclear physics.
Structure of Matter.
Structure of Matter.

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Fundamental Particles

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Atomic and Nuclear Physics

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Mass and Energy