Facts on Atoms

An atom is the smallest possible unit of an element. Atoms combine to form molecules, and when split (a process called fission), they can provide nuclear energy -- or a nuclear explosion. Inside the atom itself, strange phenomena occur that don't match our everyday experience.

  1. Chemical Reactivity

    • Electrons accumulate in "shells" around the atom's nucleus, which is made up of protons and (in most elements) neutrons. The electrons in the outer shell are the ones that are involved in chemical reactions.


    • Atoms are not divisible by chemical means, aside from the loss or sharing of some outer electrons. Their divisibility occurs only by nuclear processes, such as radioactive decay or nuclear fission.

    Covalent Bonds

    • Atoms combine into molecules either by covalent or ionic bonding. In covalent bonds, outer electrons are shared between atoms, so each has effectively a full outer shell---a stable configuration.

    Ionic Bonds

    • In ionic bonding, electrons transfer from one atom to another. This leaves the atoms as ions -- that is, electrically charged. They then stick together by electrostatic force, forming molecules.

    Quantum Effects

    • Electrons don't fall into the protons, even though they're oppositely charged. The nucleus decays according to probability instead of visible causes. The electrons' orbits are lobular instead of flat, like the planets'. These strange phenomena are described with high precision by the field of quantum mechanics.

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  • Arthur Beiser; Concepts of Modern Physics; 1987

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