The diagram of an atom doesn’t look like how it’s depicted in science books.

The diagram of the atom is bar none the most familiar symbol there is in all of science. No wonder it’s even the logo for The Factionary. Being famous is one thing, and being real is a lot more complicated than just what science can explain about reality. As it turns out, the diagram of an atom is somewhat not really how it looks like, if we could ever see it.

Related media: The History Of Atomic Chemistry: Crash Course Chemistry #37

Once Upon An Atom

The history of the structure of the atomic model dates back a pretty long time ago — as far back as the ancient Greeks. Like seriously! For the sake of this article, let’s begin around the 1900s. That was when English physicist Sir Joseph John Thomson discovered the electron — the negatively charged particle of an atom. He then proposed that these electrons… the positively charged matter.

This phenomenon was dubbed the “plum-pudding” model, it was alleged that the electrons behaved just like the plum in English pudding. Huh? In the 1910s, New Zealander physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered that if you were to shoot positively charged particles at atoms, they wouldn’t bounce off if they were really a large mass of positive “pudding.”

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Instead, some of ‘em would, while some wouldn’t; suggesting that electrons were spaced around a small mass of positive matter — (you guessed it) a nucleus. And in 1911, he finally rejiggered the atomic model and proposed that atoms revolved around the nucleus just as planets orbit the sun. This was dubbed the “planetary model” for obvious reasons and became the most popular model for the structure of the atom for decades.

Oh Oh! What’s Wrong?

This model was later refined a couple of years later by Danish physicist Niels Bohr, but they’re still was a problem with the planetary model of the atoms. It seems the electrons lose energy while in orbit which caused them to collapse into the nucleus. Kinda! Surprisingly, Bohr’s model solved this problem. Instead of the electrons orbiting “anyhow,” they orbited at specific energy levels.

Bohr’s model ensured that electrons could switch levels whenever they absorbed or released energy, and never drift between levels. This soon became the iconic atomic structure in science textbooks (the ones you learned in school) as a nucleus is surrounded by ever-larger circles of electrons. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t accurate.

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“By the 1920s, physicists had discovered that matter also has wave-like properties and that it just doesn’t work at the atomic level to regard particles as tiny points with precise locations and energies,” says physicists Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, as he cleared up the next step of the atomic model. “The matter is inherently ‘fuzzy.’ They gave up thinking of electrons as tiny planets altogether.”

Old Model Vs Cloud Model

Here’s the catch: are atoms a gimmick? Not at all. Electrons orbit in different paths, and physicists discovered that these were their (atoms) quantum properties, particles can exist in many different places at once. Sounds uncertain? However, they still occupy individual energy levels, instead of an orbital, an electron’s position could be thought of as a cloud. This is known as the electron cloud model.

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Was Bohr wrong? Not really, but his model laid the exact foundation for the modern-day understanding of the atom. His model was a practically good method for simplifying a very complicated concept. This even made conceptualizing atoms like hydrogen seem easier than anticipated earlier. The electron cloud model is best for understanding the complex dimensions of the structure of the atom more subtle. The good o’l planetary model is pretty cute, but fake. Sorry!

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, Aug 01, 2019.


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