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Rutherford's Atomic Model

Many of us have seen diagrams of atoms that look something like the Figure below.

Fig. 3120: Rutherford atom: negative electrons orbit a small positive nucleus.

Tiny particles of matter called protons and neutrons make up the center of the atom; electrons orbit like planets around a star. The nucleus carries a positive electrical charge, owing to the presence of protons (the neutrons have no electrical charge whatsoever), while the atom's balancing negative charge resides in the orbiting electrons. The negative electrons are attracted to the positive protons just as planets are gravitationally attracted by the Sun, yet the orbits are stable because of the electrons' motion. We owe this popular model of the atom to the work of Ernest Rutherford, who around the year 1911 experimentally determined that atoms' positive charges were concentrated in a tiny, dense core rather than being spread evenly about the diameter as was proposed by an earlier researcher, J.J. Thompson.

Figure 3389: Rutherford scattering: a beam of alpha particles is scattered by a thin gold foil.
Rutherford's scattering experiment involved bombarding a thin gold foil with positively charged alpha particles as in the Figure at the right. Young graduate students H. Geiger and E. Marsden experienced unexpected results. A few Alpha particles were deflected at large angles. A few Alpha particles were back-scattering, recoiling at nearly 180o. Most of the particles passed through the gold foil undeflected, indicating that the foil was mostly empty space. The fact that a few alpha particles experienced large deflections indicated the presence of a miniscule positively charged nucleus.

Although Rutherford's atomic model accounted for experimental data better than Thompson's, it still wasn't perfect. Further attempts at defining atomic structure were undertaken, and these efforts helped pave the way for the bizarre discoveries of quantum physics. Today our understanding of the atom is quite a bit more complex. Nevertheless, despite the revolution of quantum physics and its contribution to our understanding of atomic structure, Rutherford's solar-system picture of the atom embedded itself in the popular conscience to such a degree that it persists in some areas of study even when inappropriate.

Consider this short description of electrons in an atom, taken from a popular electronics textbook:

Orbiting negative electrons are therefore attracted toward the positive nucleus, which leads us to the question of why the electrons do not fly into the atom's nucleus. The answer is that the orbiting electrons remain in their stable orbit because of two equal but opposite forces. The centrifugal outward force exerted on the electrons because of the orbit counteracts the attractive inward force (centripetal) trying to pull the electrons toward the nucleus because of the unlike charges.

In keeping with the Rutherford model, this author casts the electrons as solid chunks of matter engaged in circular orbits, their inward attraction to the oppositely charged nucleus balanced by their motion. The reference to “centrifugal force” is technically incorrect (even for orbiting planets), but is easily forgiven because of its popular acceptance: in reality, there is no such thing as a force pushing any orbiting body away from its center of orbit. It seems that way because a body's inertia tends to keep it traveling in a straight line, and since an orbit is a constant deviation (acceleration) from straight-line travel, there is constant inertial opposition to whatever force is attracting the body toward the orbit center (centripetal), be it gravity, electrostatic attraction, or even the tension of a mechanical link.

The real problem with this explanation, however, is the idea of electrons traveling in circular orbits in the first place. It is a verifiable fact that accelerating electric charges emit electromagnetic radiation, and this fact was known even in Rutherford's time. Since orbiting motion is a form of acceleration (the orbiting object in constant acceleration away from normal, straight-line motion), electrons in an orbiting state should be throwing off radiation like mud from a spinning tire. Electrons accelerated around circular paths in particle accelerators called synchrotrons are known to do this, and the result is called synchrotron radiation. If electrons were losing energy in this way, their orbits would eventually decay, resulting in collisions with the positively charged nucleus. Nevertheless, this doesn't ordinarily happen within atoms. Indeed, electron “orbits” are remarkably stable over a wide range of conditions.

Furthermore, experiments with “excited” atoms demonstrated that electromagnetic energy emitted by an atom only occurs at certain, definite frequencies. Atoms that are “excited” by outside influences such as light are known to absorb that energy and return it as electromagnetic waves of specific frequencies, like a tuning fork that rings at a fixed pitch no matter how it is struck. When the light emitted by an excited atom is divided into its constituent frequencies (colors) by a prism, distinct lines of color appear in the spectrum, the pattern of spectral lines being unique to that element. This phenomenon is commonly used to identify atomic elements, and even measure the proportions of each element in a compound or chemical mixture. According to Rutherford's solar-system atomic model (regarding electrons as chunks of matter free to orbit at any radius) and the laws of classical physics, excited atoms should return energy over a virtually limitless range of frequencies rather than a select few. In other words, if Rutherford's model were correct, there would be no “tuning fork” effect, and the light spectrum emitted by any atom would appear as a continuous band of colors rather than as a few distinct lines.

Last Update: 2010-11-19