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 Proton

The fact that the nuclear charges were all integer multiples of e sug-gested to many physicists that rather than being a pointlike object, the nucleus might contain smaller particles having individual charges of +e. Evidence in favor of this idea was not long in arriving. Rutherford reasoned that if he bombarded the atoms of a very light element with alpha particles, the small charge of the target nuclei would give a very weak repulsion. Perhaps those few alpha particles that happened to arrive on head-on collision courses would get so close that they would physically crash into some of the target nuclei. An alpha particle is itself a nucleus, so this would be a collision between two nuclei, and a violent one due to the high speeds involved. Rutherford hit pay dirt in an experiment with alpha particles striking a target containing nitrogen atoms. Charged particles were detected flying out of the target like parts flying off of cars in a high-speed crash. Measurements of the deflection of these particles in electric and magnetic fields showed that they had the same charge-to-mass ratio as singly-ionized hydrogen atoms. Rutherford concluded that these were the conjectured singly-charged particles that held the charge of the nucleus, and they were later named protons. The hydrogen nucleus consists of a single proton, and in general, an element's atomic number gives the number of protons contained in each of its nuclei. The mass of the proton is about 1800 times greater than the mass of the electron.

Last Update: 2009-06-21