Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

The Raisin Cookie Model of the Atom

The raisin cookie model of the atom with four units of charge, which we now know to be beryllium.

Based on his experiments, Thomson proposed a picture of the atom which became known as the raisin cookie model. In the neutral atom shown in the figure, there are four electrons with a total charge of -4e, sitting in a sphere (the "cookie") with a charge of +4e spread throughout it. It was known that chemical reactions could not change one element into another, so in Thomson's scenario, each element's cookie sphere had a permanently fixed radius, mass, and positive charge, different from those of other elements. The electrons, however, were not a permanent feature of the atom, and could be tacked on or pulled out to make charged ions. Although we now know, for instance, that a neutral atom with four electrons is the element beryllium, scientists at the time did not know how many electrons the various neutral atoms possessed.

This model is clearly different from the one you've learned in grade school or through popular culture, where the positive charge is concentrated in a tiny nucleus at the atom's center. An equally important change in ideas about the atom has been the realization that atoms and their constituent subatomic particles behave entirely differently from objects on the human scale. For instance, we'll see later that an electron can be in more than one place at one time. The raisin cookie model was part of a long tradition of attempts to make mechanical models of phenomena, and Thomson and his contemporaries never questioned the appropriateness of building a mental model of an atom as a machine with little parts inside. Today, mechanical models of atoms are still used (for instance the tinker-toy-style molecular modeling kits like the ones used by Watson and Crick to figure out the double helix structure of DNA), but scientists realize that the physical objects are only aids to help our brains' symbolic and visual processes think about atoms.

Although there was no clear-cut experimental evidence for many of the details of the raisin cookie model, physicists went ahead and started working out its implications. For instance, suppose you had a four-electron atom. All four electrons would be repelling each other, but they would also all be attracted toward the center of the "cookie" sphere. The result should be some kind of stable, symmetric arrangement in which all the forces canceled out. People sufficiently clever with math soon showed that the electrons in a four-electron atom should settle down at the vertices of a pyramid with one less side than the Egyptian kind, i.e. a regular tetrahedron. This deduction turns out to be wrong because it was based on incorrect features of the model, but the model also had many successes, a few of which we will now discuss.

Flow of electrical charge in wires.

Flow of electrical charge across cell membranes.

Emission of electrons in a cathode ray tube.

Discussion Questions

A Today many people would define an ion as an atom (or molecule) with missing electrons or extra electrons added on. How would people have defined the word "ion" before the discovery of the electron?
B Since electrically neutral atoms were known to exist, there had to be positively charged subatomic stuff to cancel out the negatively charged electrons in an atom. Based on the state of knowledge immediately after the Millikan and Thomson experiments, was it possible that the positively charged stuff had an unquantized amount of charge? Could it be quantized in units of +e? In units of +2e? In units of +5/7e?

Last Update: 2009-06-21