The Story of Nuclear Energy, Volume 1 (of 3): The Structure of the Atom by@isaacasimov

The Story of Nuclear Energy, Volume 1 (of 3): The Structure of the Atom

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Worlds Within Worlds: The Story of Nuclear Energy, Volume 1 (of 3), by Isaac Asimov is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. Volume I, ELECTRICITY: The Structure of the Atom. The Structure. of the atom is based on the structure of radioactive atoms, such as those of uranium and thorium, which gave off positively charged alpha particles. Many atoms, however, that were not radioactive, could be made to give off electrons. In 1899 Thomson showed that certain perfectly normal metals with no trace of radioactivity gave off electrons when exposed to ultraviolet light.

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Worlds Within Worlds: The Story of Nuclear Energy, Volume 1 (of 3), by Isaac Asimov is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Volume I, ELECTRICITY: The Structure of the Atom

The Structure of the Atom

Since radioactive atoms gave off either positively charged particles or negatively charged particles, it seemed reasonable to assume that atoms generally were made up of both types of electricity. Furthermore, since the atoms in matter generally carried no charge at all, the normal “neutral atom” must be made up of equal quantities of positive charge and negative charge.

It turned out that only radioactive atoms, such as those of uranium and thorium, gave off positively charged alpha particles. Many atoms, however, that were not radioactive, could be made to give off electrons. In 1899 Thomson showed that certain perfectly normal metals with no trace of radioactivity gave off electrons when exposed to ultraviolet light. (This is called the “photoelectric effect”.)

It was possible to suppose, then, that the main structure of the atom was positively charged and generally immovable, and that there were also present light electrons, which could easily be detached. Thomson had suggested, as early as 1898, that the atom was a ball of matter carrying a positive charge and that individual electrons were stuck throughout its substance, like raisins in pound cake.

If something like the Thomson view were correct then the number of electrons, each with one unit of negative electricity, would depend on the total size of the positive charge carried by the atom. If the charge were +5, there would have to be 5 electrons present to balance that. The total charge would then be 0 and the atom as a whole would be electrically neutral.

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If, in such a case, an electron were removed, the atomic charge of +5 would be balanced by only 4 electrons with a total charge of -4. In that case, the net charge of the atom as a whole would be +1. On the other hand, if an extra electron were forced onto the atom, the charge of +5 would be balanced by 6 electrons with a total charge of -6, and the net charge of the atom as a whole would be -1.

Such electrically charged atoms were called “ions” and their existence had been suspected since Faraday’s day. Faraday had known that atoms had to travel through a solution under the influence of an electric field to account for the way in which metals and gases appeared at the cathode and anode. It was he who first used the term, ion, from a Greek word meaning “traveller”. The word had been suggested to him by the English scholar, William Whewell (1794-1866). In 1884 the Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927) had first worked out a detailed theory based on the suggestion that these ions were atoms or groups of atoms that carried an electric charge.

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Svante A. Arrhenius

By the close of the 19th century, then, Arrhenius’s suggestion seemed correct. There were positive ions made up of atoms or groups of atoms, from which one or more of the electrons within the atoms had been removed. There were negative ions made up of single atoms or of groups of atoms, to which one or more extra electrons had been added.

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Although Thomson’s model of the atom explained the existence of ions and the fact that atoms could give off electrons or absorb them, it was not satisfactory in all ways. Further investigations yielded results not compatible with the raisins-in-the-pound-cake notion.

In 1906 Rutherford began to study what happened when massive subatomic particles, such as alpha particles, passed through matter. When alpha particles passed through a thin film of gold, for instance, they raced through, for the most part, as though nothing were there. The alpha particles seemed to push the light electrons aside and to act as though the positively charged main body of the atom that Thomson had pictured was not solid, but was soft and spongy.

The only trouble was that every once in a while an alpha particle seemed to strike something in the gold film and bounce to one side. Sometimes it even bounced directly backward. It was as though somewhere in each atom there was something at least as massive as the alpha particle.

How large was this massive portion of the atom? It couldn’t be very large for if it were the alpha particles would hit it frequently. Instead, the alpha particles made very few hits. This meant the massive portion was very small and that most alpha particles tore through the atom without coming anywhere near it.

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Rutherford’s alpha particle bombardment apparatus. A piece of radium in the lead box (B) emits alpha particles that go through the gold foil (F). These particles are scattered at different angles onto the fluorescent screen (S), where the flashes caused by each impact are seen through the microscope (M). Below, alpha particles are shown bouncing off a nucleus in the gold foil.

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By 1911 Rutherford announced his results to the world. He suggested that just about all the mass of the atom was concentrated into a very tiny, positively charged “nucleus” at its center. The diameter of the nucleus was only about 1/10,000 the diameter of the atom. All the rest of the atom was filled with the very light electrons.

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Hans Geiger (left) and Ernest Rutherford at Manchester University about 1910.

According to Rutherford’s notion, the atom consisted of a single tiny positively charged lead shot at the center of a foam of electrons. It was Thomson’s notion in reverse. Still, the nucleus carried a positive charge of a particular size and was balanced by negatively charged electrons. Rutherford’s 30model of the atom explained the existence of ions just as easily as Thomson’s did and it explained more besides.

For instance, if all the electrons are removed so that only the nucleus remains, this nucleus is as massive as an atom but is so tiny in size that it can penetrate matter. The alpha particle would be a bare atomic nucleus from this point of view.

Rutherford’s model of the “nuclear atom” is still accepted today.

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Isaac Asimov. 2015. Worlds Within Worlds: The Story of Nuclear Energy, Volume 1 (of 3). Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49819/49819-h/49819-h.htm#c6

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.

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