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....

Atomic Number

As alluded to in a discussion question in the previous section, scientists of this period had only a very approximate idea of how many units of charge resided in the nuclei of the various chemical elements. Although we now associate the number of units of nuclear charge with the element's position on the periodic table, and call it the atomic number, they had no idea that such a relationship existed. Mendeleev's table just seemed like an organizational tool, not something with any necessary physical significance. And everything Mendeleev had done seemed equally valid if you turned the table upside-down or reversed its left and right sides, so even if you wanted to number the elements sequentially with integers, there was an ambiguity as to how to do it. Mendeleev's original table was in fact upside-down compared to the modern one.

In the period immediately following the discovery of the nucleus, physicists only had rough estimates of the charges of the various nuclei. In the case of the very lightest nuclei, they simply found the maximum number of electrons they could strip off by various methods: chemical reactions, electric sparks, ultraviolet light, and so on. For example they could easily strip off one or two electrons from helium, making He+ or He++, but nobody could make He+++, presumably because the nuclear charge of helium was only +2e. Unfortunately only a few of the lightest elements could be stripped completely, because the more electrons were stripped off, the greater the positive net charge remaining, and the more strongly the rest of the negatively charged electrons would be held on. The heavy elements' atomic numbers could only be roughly extrapolated from the light elements, where the atomic number was about half the atom's mass expressed in units of the mass of a hydrogen atom. Gold, for example, had a mass about 197 times that of hydrogen, so its atomic number was estimated to be about half that, or somewhere around 100. We now know it to be 79.

A modern periodic table, labeled with atomic numbers. Mendeleev's original table was upside-down compared to this one.

How did we finally find out? The riddle of the nuclear charges was at last successfully attacked using two different techniques, which gave consistent results. One set of experiments, involving x-rays, was performed by the young Henry Mosely, whose scientific brilliance was soon to be sacrificed in a battle between European imperialists over who would own the Dardanelles, during that pointless conflict then known as the War to End All Wars, and now referred to as World War I.

Since Mosely's analysis requires several concepts with which you are not yet familiar, we will instead describe the technique used by James Chadwick at around the same time. An added bonus of describing Chadwick's experiments is that they presaged the important modern technique of studying collisions of subatomic particles. In grad school, I worked with a professor whose thesis adviser's thesis adviser was Chadwick, and he related some interesting stories about the man. Chadwick was apparently a little nutty and a complete fanatic about science, to the extent that when he was held in a German prison camp during World War II, he managed to cajole his captors into allowing him to scrounge up parts from broken radios so that he could attempt to do physics experiments.

Chadwick's experiment worked like this. Suppose you perform two Rutherford-type alpha scattering measurements, first one with a gold foil as a target as in Rutherford's original experiment, and then one with a copper foil. It is possible to get large angles of deflection in both cases, but as shown in the figure, the alpha particle must be heading almost straight for the copper nucleus to get the same angle of deflection that would have occurred with an alpha that was much farther off the mark; the gold nucleus' charge is so much greater than the copper's that it exerts a strong force on the alpha particle even from far off. The situation is very much like that of a blindfolded person playing darts. Just as it is impossible to aim an alpha particle at an individual nucleus in the target, the blindfolded person cannot really aim the darts. Achieving a very close encounter with the copper atom would be akin to hitting an inner circle on the dartboard. It's much more likely that one would have the luck to hit the outer circle, which covers a greater number of square inches. By analogy, if you measure the frequency with which alphas are scattered by copper at some particular angle, say between 19 and 20 degrees, and then perform the same measurement at the same angle with gold, you get a much higher percentage for gold than for copper.

An alpha particle must be headed for the ring on the front of the imaginary cylindrical pipe in order to produce scattering at an angle between 19 and 20 degrees. The area of this ring is called the "cross-section" for scattering at 19-20 because it is the cross-sectional area of a cut through the pipe.

In fact, the numerical ratio of the two nuclei's charges can be derived from this same experimentally determined ratio. Using the standard nota tion Z for the atomic number (charge of the nucleus divided by e), the following equation can be proved:

By making such measurements for targets constructed from all the elements, one can infer the ratios of all the atomic numbers, and since the atomic numbers of the light elements were already known, atomic numbers could be assigned to the entire periodic table. According to Mosely, the atomic numbers of copper, silver and platinum were 29, 47, and 78, which corresponded well with their positions on the periodic table. Chadwick's figures for the same elements were 29.3, 46.3, and 77.4, with error bars of about 1.5 times the fundamental charge, so the two experiments were in good agreement.

The point here is absolutely not that you should be ready to plug numbers into the above equation for a homework or exam question! My overall goal in this chapter is to explain how we know what we know about atoms. An added bonus of describing Chadwick's experiment is that the approach is very similar to that used in modern particle physics experi ments, and the ideas used in the analysis are closely related to the now ubiquitous concept of a "cross-section." In the dartboard analogy, the cross- section would be the area of the circular ring you have to hit. The reasoning behind the invention of the term "cross-section" can be visualized as shown in the figure. In this language, Rutherford's invention of the planetary model came from his unexpected discovery that there was a nonzero cross- section for alpha scattering from gold at large angles, and Chadwick confirmed Mosely's determinations of the atomic numbers by measuring cross-sections for alpha scattering.

Proof of the relationship between atomic number and scattering

The equation above can be derived by the following not very rigorous proof. To deflect the alpha particle by a certain angle requires that it acquire a certain momentum component in the direction perpendicular to its original momentum. Although the nucleus' forceon the alpha particle is not constant, we can pretend that it is approximately constant during the time when the alpha is within a distance equal to, say, 150% of its distance of closest approach, and that the force is zero before and after that part of the motion. (If we chose 120% or 200%, it shouldn't make any difference in the final result, because the final result is a ratio, and the effects on the numerator and denominator should cancel each other.) In the approximation of constant force, the change in the alpha's perpendicular momentum component is then equal to FΔt.The Coulomb force law says the force is proportional to Z/r2. Although r does change somewhat during the time interval of interest, it's good enough to treat it as a constant number, since we're only computing the ratio between the two experiments' results. Since we are approximating the force as acting over the time during which the distance is not too much greater than the distance of closest approach, the time interval Δt must be proportional to r, and the sideways momentum imparted to the alpha, FΔt, is proportional to (Z/r2r, or Z / r. If we're comparing alphas scatteredat the same angle from gold and from copper, then Δp is the same in both cases, and the proportionality Δp Z/r tells us that the ones scattered from copper at that angle had to be headed in along a line closer to the central axis by a factor equaling Zgold/Zcopper. Ifyou imagine a "dartboard ring" that the alphas have to hit, then the ring for the gold experiment has the same proportions as the one for copper, but it is enlarged by a factor equal to Zgold/Zcopper. That is, not only is the radius of the ring greater by that factor, but unlike the rings on a normal dartboard, the thickness of the outerring is also greater in proportion to its radius. When you take a geometric shape and scale it up in size like a photographic enlargement, its area is increased inproportion to the square of the enlargement factor, so the area of the dartboard ring in the gold experiment is greater by a factor equal to (Zgold/Zcopper)2. Since the alphas are aimed entirely randomly, the chances of an alpha hitting the ring are in proportion to the area of the ring, which proves the equation given above.

As an example of the modern use of scattering experiments and cross-section measurements, you may have heard of the recent experimental evidence for the existence of a particle called the top quark. Of the twelve subatomic particles currently believed to be the smallest constituents of matter, six form a family called the quarks, distinguished from the other six by the intense attractive forces that make the quarks stick to each other. (The other six consist of the electron plus five other, more exotic particles.) The only two types of quarks found in naturally occurring matter are the "up quark" and "down quark," which are what protons and neutrons are made of, but four other types were theoretically predicted to exist, for a total of six. (The whimsical term "quark" comes from a line by James Joyce reading "Three quarks for master Mark.") Until recently, only five types of quarks had been proven to exist via experiments, and the sixth, the top quark, was only theorized. There was no hope of ever detecting a top quark directly, since it is radioactive, and only exists for a zillionth of a second before evaporating. Instead, the researchers searching for it at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago measured cross-sections for scattering of nuclei off of other nuclei. The experiment was much like those of Rutherford and Chadwick, except that the incoming nuclei had to be boosted to much higher speeds in a particle accelerator. The resulting encounter with a target nucleus was so violent that both nuclei were completely demolished, but, as Einstein proved, energy can be converted into matter, and the energy of the collision creates a spray of exotic, radioac-tive particles, like the deadly shower of wood fragments produced by a cannon ball in an old naval battle. Among those particles were some top quarks. The cross-sections being measured were the cross-sections for the production of certain combinations of these secondary particles. However different the details, the principle was the same as that employed at the turn of the century: you smash things together and look at the fragments that fly off to see what was inside them. The approach has been compared to shooting a clock with a rifle and then studying the pieces that fly off to figure out how the clock worked.

Discussion Questions

A Why does it make sense that, as shown in the figure, the trajectories that result in 19 and 20 scattering cross each other?
B Rutherford knew the velocity of the alpha particles emitted by radium, and guessed that the positively charged part of a gold atom had a charge of about +100e (we now know it is +79e). Considering the fact that some alpha particles were deflected by 180, how could he then use conservation of energy to derive an upper limit on the size of a gold nucleus? (For simplicity, assume the size of the alpha particle is negligible compared to that of the gold nucleus, and ignore the fact that the gold nucleus recoils a little from the collision, picking up a little kinetic energy.)
C The diagram showing alpha particles being deflected by a gold nucleus was drawn with the assumption that alpha particles came in on lines at many different distances from the nucleus. Why wouldn't they all come in along the same line, since they all came out through the same tube?




Last Update: 2010-11-11