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The Atom

By the early 20th century, there was rather compelling evidence that matter could be described by an atomic theory. That is, matter is composed of relatively few building blocks that we refer to as atoms. This theory provided a consistent and unified picture for all known chemical processes at that time. However, some mysteries could not be explained by this atomic theory. In 1896, A.H. Becquerel discovered penetrating radiation. In 1897, J.J. Thomson showed that electrons have negative electric charge and come from ordinary matter. For matter to be electrically neutral, there must also be positive charges lurking somewhere. Where are and what carries these positive charges?

A monumental breakthrough came in 1911 when Ernest Rutherford and his coworkers conducted an experiment intended to determine the angles through which a beam of alpha particles (helium nuclei) would scatter after passing through a thin foil of gold.

Models of the atom. The dot at the center of the Rutherford atom is the nucleus. The size of the dot is enlarged so that it can be seen in the figure.

What results would be expected for such an experiment? It depends on how the atom is organized. A prevailing model of the atom at the time (the Thomson, or "plum-pudding," atom) proposed that the negatively charged electrons (the plums) were mixed with smeared-out positive charges (the pudding). This model explained the neutrality of bulk material, yet still allowed the description of the flow of electric charges. In this model, it would be very unlikely for an alpha particle to scatter through an angle greater than a small fraction of a degree, and the vast majority should undergo almost no scattering at all.

The results from Rutherford’s experiment were astounding. The vast majority of alpha particles behaved as expected, and hardly scattered at all. But there were alpha particles that scattered through angles greater than 90 degrees, incredible in light of expectations for a "plum-pudding" atom. It was largely the evidence from this type of experiment that led to the model of the atom as having a nucleus. The only model of the atom consistent with this Rutherford experiment is that a small central core (the nucleus) houses the positive charge and most of the mass of the atom, while the majority of the atom’s volume contains discrete electrons orbiting about the central nucleus.

Under classical electromagnetic theory, a charge that is moving in a circular path, loses energy. In Rutherford’s model, the electrons orbit the nucleus similar to the orbit of planets about the sun. However, under this model, there is nothing to prevent the electrons from losing energy and falling into the nucleus under the influence of its Coulomb attraction. This stability problem was solved by Niels Bohr in 1913 with a new model in which there are particular orbits in which the electrons do not lose energy and therefore do not spiral into the nucleus. This model was the beginning of quantum mechanics, which successfully explains many properties of atoms. Bohr’s model of the atom is still a convenient description of the energy levels of the hydrogen atom.

  last updated: August 9, 2000 webmaster