Science for the Scared 2: What is an Atom?

31 Dec












Okay. You’ve all seen the picture of an atom. It looks like the sun with a planet running around it in a neat, circular orbit. That’s not really how it works. But thank you Ernest Rutherford for at least coming up with that idea in 1911. Atoms are actually more complicated than that. A real scientist could give you more details but right now you’ve got me, so here goes.


An atom is made of three parts. In the center is the nucleus. It is made of protons and neutrons. That is, except for hydrogen, which is the most widespread atom in the universe, the original bad boy who helped to started the whole matter thing when the earth began 13.8 billion years ago. Hydrogen has only a proton for a nucleus.


A proton has a positive charge. Hence the name “Pro.” Guess what a neutron has? You guessed it. NO charge. So what holds this odd couple together? What is the secret of their successful relationship? I mean, you split the neutron from the proton and you have yourself a nuclear reaction. The secret is called the Strong Force. (There are four main forces—The strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity—more about that later). All you need to know for now is that the strong force is incredibly powerful. 


Electrons bounce around the nucleus. These tiny, tiny little particles (each proton has about 1,800 times the mass of an electron) have a negative charge. Because of their complex magnetic relationship they do not orbit around the nucleus in a neat circle. They are more like crazy clouds of flies. Where they are at any moment is not random. There are certain bands circling where electrons are more likely to hang out. These bands are called shells. When an atom is in a state of low energy (as it is in solids), electrons hang out close to the protons. When they are excited, the electrons are more likely to move outward from the center.


The more protons an atom has, the higher its atomic number is. You’ve seen the periodic table, right? The number of each element corresponds to an atom. Hydrogen (H), is 1, because it has 1 proton. Carbon (C ), has 6 protons. Silver (AG) has 47.  An atom is the smallest unit of an element.

Writing prompt: Because there’s always a writing prompt! What attracts and repels YOU?


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