Introduction to Atomic Physics

Atomic energy is the source of power for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. This energy comes from the splitting (fission) or joining (fusion) of atoms. To understand the source of this energy, one must first understand the atom.

Components of the atom
Components of the atom

An atom is the smallest particle of an element that has the properties characterizing that element. Knowledge about the nature of the atom grew slowly until the early 1900s. One of the first breakthroughs was achieved by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1911. He established that the mass of the atom is concentrated in its nucleus. He also proposed that the nucleus has a positive charge and is surrounded by negatively charged electrons, which had been discovered in 1897 by J. J. Thomson.

This theory of atomic structure was complemented by Niels Bohr in 1913. The Bohr atom placed the electrons in definite shells, or quantum levels. Understanding the atom continues to be a focus for many scientists.

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