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Structure of an Atom

Author: John Hutchinson

We begin as a starting point with the atomic molecular theory. We thus assume that most of the common elements have been identified, and that each element is characterized as consisting of identical, indestructible atoms. We also assume that the atomic weights of the elements are all known, and that, as a consequence, it is possible via mass composition measurements to determine the molecular formula for any compound of interest. In addition, we will assume that it has been shown by electrochemical experiments that atoms contain equal numbers of positively and negatively charged particles, called protons and electrons respectively. Finally, we assume an understanding of the Periodic Table. In particular, we assume that the elements can be grouped according to their common chemical and physical properties, and that these chemical and physical properties are periodic functions of the atomic number.

The atomic molecular theory is extremely useful in explaining what it means to form a compound from its component elements. That is, a compound consists of identical molecules, each comprised of the atoms of the component elements in a simple whole number ratio. However, our knowledge of these atoms is very limited. The only property we know at this point is the relative mass of each atom. Consequently, we cannot answer a wide range of new questions. We need a model which accounts for the periodicity of chemical and physical properties as expressed in the Periodic Table. Why are elements which are very dissimilar in atomic mass nevertheless very similar in properties? Why do these common properties recur periodically?

We would like to understand what determines the number of atoms of each type which combine to form stable compounds. Why are some combinations found and other combinations not observed? Why do some elements with very dissimilar atomic masses (for example, iodine and chlorine) form very similar chemical compounds? Why do other elements with very similar atomic masses (for example, oxygen and nitrogen) form very dissimilar compounds? In general, what forces hold atoms together in forming a molecule?

Answering these questions requires knowledge of the structure of the atom, including how the structures of atoms of different elements are different. Our model should tell us how these structural differences result in the different bonding properties of the different atoms.

Last Update: 2011-02-16