In physics, the atomic nucleus is the central part of an atom. In comparison to an atom, it is much smaller and contains most of the mass of the atom. The atomic nucleus also contains all of its positive electric charge (in protons), while all of its negative charges are distributed in the electron cloud.
The atomic nucleus was discovered by Ernest Rutherford, who proposed a new model of the atom based on Geiger-Marsden experiments. These experiments were performed between 1908 and 1913 by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under the direction of Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford’s idea was to direct energetic alpha particles at a thin metal foil and measure how an alpha particle beam is scattered when it strikes a thin metal foil. A narrow collimated beam of alpha particles was aimed at a gold foil of approximately 1 μm thickness (about 10,000 atoms thick). Alpha particles are energetic nuclei of helium (usually about 6 MeV). Alpha particles, which are about 7300 times more massive than electrons, have a positive charge of +2e. Because of their relatively much greater mass, alpha particles are not significantly deflected from their paths by the electrons in the metal’s atoms.
According to Thomson’s model, if an alpha particle were to collide with a plum-pudding atom, it would just fly straight through, its path deflected by at most a fraction of a degree. But in the experiment, Geiger and Marsden saw that most of the particles were scattered through rather small angles, but this was a big surprise. A small fraction of them is scattered through very large angles, approaching 180° (i.e., they recoiled backward).
In Rutherford’s words:
“It is almost as incredible as if you had fired a fifteen-inch shell at a sheet of tissue paper, and it came back and hit you.”
Rutherford assumed that to deflect the alpha particle backward, and there must be a very large force. This force could be provided only as a result of a collision with a massive target or an interaction with an electric or magnetic field of great strength. Previous experiments showed that the deflections had to be electrical or perhaps magnetic in origin.
These experiments were a landmark series of experiments by which scientists discovered that every atom contains a nucleus (whose diameter is of the order 10-14m) where all of its positive charge and most of its mass are concentrated in a small region called an atomic nucleus. In Rutherford’s atom, the diameter of its sphere (about 10-10 m) of influence is determined by its electrons. In other words, the nucleus occupies only about 10-12 of the total volume of the atom or less (the nuclear atom is largely empty space), but it contains all the positive charge and at least 99.95% of the total mass of the atom.
Based on these results, Ernest Rutherford proposed a new model of the atom. He postulated that the positive charge in an atom is concentrated in a small region (in comparison to the rest of the atom) called a nucleus at the center of the atom with electrons existing in orbits around it. Furthermore, the nucleus is responsible for most of the mass of the atom.