Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Summary - Atom

Hydrogen, with one proton and one electron, is the simplest atom, and more complex atoms can often be analyzed to a reasonably good approximation by assuming their electrons occupy states that have the same structure as the hydrogen atom's. The electron in a hydrogen atom exchanges very little energy or angular momentum with the proton, so its energy and angular momentum are nearly constant, and can be used to classify its states. The energy of a hydrogen state depends only on its n quantum number.

In quantum physics, the angular momentum of a particle moving in a plane is quantized in units of h[bar]. Atoms are three-dimensional, however, so the question naturally arises of how to deal with angular momentum in three dimensions. In three dimensions, angular momentum is a vector in the direction perpendicular to the plane of motion, such that the motion appears clockwise if viewed along the direction of the vector. Since angular momentum depends on both position and momentum, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle limits the accuracy with which one can know it. The most the can be known about an angular momentum vector is its magnitude and one of its three vector components, both of which are quantized in units of h[bar].

In addition to the angular momentum that an electron carries by virtue of its motion through space, it possesses an intrinsic angular momentum with a magnitude of h[bar]/2. Protons and neutrons also have spins of h[bar]/2, while the photon has a spin equal to h[bar]. Particles with half-integer spin obey the Pauli exclusion principle: only one such particle can exist is a given state, i.e., with a given combination of quantum numbers.

We can enumerate the lowest-energy states of hydrogen as follows:

The periodic table can be understood in terms of the filling of these states. The nonreactive noble gases are those atoms in which the electrons are exactly sufficient to fill all the states up to a given n value. The most reactive elements are those with one more electron than a noble gas element, which can release a great deal of energy by giving away their high-energy electron, and those with one electron fewer than a noble gas, which release energy by accepting an electron.

Last Update: 2009-06-21