Fundamentals of Chemistry
CHARACTERISTICS OF ATOMS
The particles that orbit the nucleus are electrons. They are very small, with a mass only 1/1835
the mass of a proton or neutron. Each electron is negatively charged, and the charge of one
electron is equal in magnitude (but opposite in sign) to the charge of one proton. The number
of electrons orbiting a nucleus is exactly equal to the number of protons contained in that
nucleus. The equal and opposite charges cancel each other, and the atom as a whole is neutral.
The electrons are bound in the atom by electrostatic attraction. The atom remains neutral unless
some external force causes a change in the number of electrons.
The diameter of the atom is determined by the range of the electrons in their travels around the
nucleus and is approximately 10 cm. The diameter of the nucleus is roughly 10,000 times
smaller, approximately 10
to 10 cm. Because the nucleus is composed of neutrons and
protons that are about 1835 times heavier than an electron, the nucleus contains practically all
the mass of the atom, but constitutes a very small fraction of the volume. Although electrons
are individually very small, the space in which they orbit the nucleus constitutes the largest part
of the atomic volume.
Figure 1 illustrates these size relationships, but not to scale. If the nucleus were the size shown,
the electrons would be several hundred feet away.
Some of the properties of the atom and its component parts are summarized in Table 1. The
masses listed in Table 1 are measured in atomic mass units (amu), which is a relative scale in
which the mass of a proton is about 1.0.
Properties of the Atom and its Fundamental Particles
(based on charge of proton)
0.00055 or 1/1835
An atom is classified chemically by the number of protons in its nucleus. Atoms that have the
same number of protons in their nuclei have the same chemical behavior. Atoms that have the
same number of protons are grouped together and constitute a chemical element.