Atoms and Molecules

Structure of the Atom

How did scientists determine that atoms consist of electrons, neutrons, and protons?

Originally atoms were thought to be the smallest unit of matter, but in the late nineteenth century experiments allowed scientists to finally probe inside atoms. Some of these first experiments were carried out by the British physicist J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron. He noticed that the rays (actually rays of electrons, though he didn’t know it at the time) were deflected by electrically charged plates and concluded that these rays must consist of charged particles that were much smaller than atoms themselves.

Thomson’s first graduate student, Ernest Rutherford, continued to investigate the nature of the atom. In the early twentieth century, Rutherford carried out a now-famous experiment in which radioactive particles were shot through extremely thin gold foil. While some bounced off of the nuclei in different directions, most of the particles actually passed through the foil undeflected. Rutherford interpreted this as an indication that the atoms making up the foil must consist of mostly empty space. Over his career, he developed the picture of the atom as a positively charged center surrounded by electrons, and he also proposed that there must be neutral particles (neutrons) to explain the different isotopes of a given element.


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