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Introduction to Atomic Physics

Updated on September 14, 2014

Hydrogen atom

Hydrogen atom
Hydrogen atom | Source

According to Wikipedia, the name atom comes from the Greek "atomos", which basically means "indivisible". However, the article goes on to say that "during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physicists discovered subatomic components and structure inside the atom, thereby demonstrating that the 'atom' was divisible."

So although the atom was thought to be the smallest part of something you could get, we now know that this isn't true. Atoms themselves are made up of "things" called particles, some of which, themselves, are made up of still more particles!

This area of science is called particle physics, or quantum physics, and an awful lot still remains undiscovered. Famous scientists (such as Professor Stephen Hawking) study this area.

The Large Hadron Collider

The well known CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) "Large Hadron Collider" has been built to try to help scientists study these particles.

Opened in 2008, detectors at the collider look for particles which could hold the key to answering questions such as "What gives matter its mass?" and "Why is there more matter than anti-matter?"

Since everything is made of atoms (even you and I!) this area can come into every other type of science; physics (heat and light, for example) chemistry (making new substances, chemical reactions) and biology (living organisms are made of, and use chemicals). The electron in "electronics" can be found in atoms, as you can see in the diagrams above and below.

A water molecule

Image courtesy of Florida Center for Environmental Studies
Image courtesy of Florida Center for Environmental Studies

A molecule of water, H₂O, is made up of 3 atoms

Two or more atoms joined together are called "molecules". Molecules can be made up of atoms of the same type (like 2 hydrogen atoms) or atoms of different types (like hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms).

A water molecule consists of one oxygen (O) atom bonded to two hydrogen (H) atoms.

(The “8+” refers to the atomic number of oxygen, which is also the number of protons in the nucleus and number of electrons in the energy levels outside the nucleus.)

In the following short articles, more will be explained about exactly what an atom is, and about the protons, neutrons and electrons which together, form an atom


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