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 Atom

A wavefunction of an electron in a hydrogen atom.

You can learn a lot by taking a car engine apart, but you will have learned a lot more if you can put it all back together again and make it run. Half the job of reductionism is to break nature down into its smallest parts and understand the rules those parts obey. The second half is to show how those parts go together, and that is our goal in this chapter. We have seen how certain features of all atoms can be explained on a generic basis in terms of the properties of bound states, but this kind of argument clearly cannot tell us any details of the behavior of an atom or explain why one atom acts differently from another.

The biggest embarrassment for reductionists is that the job of putting things back together is usually much harder than the taking them apart. Seventy years after the fundamentals of atomic physics were solved, it is only beginning to be possible to calculate accurately the properties of atoms that have many electrons. Systems consisting of many atoms are even harder. Supercomputer manufacturers point to the folding of large protein molecules as a process whose calculation is just barely feasible with their fastest machines. The goal of this chapter is to give a gentle and visually oriented guide to some of the simpler results about atoms.

Last Update: 2009-06-21