Matter has mass and takes up space. Atoms are basic building blocks of matter, and cannot be chemically subdivided by ordinary means.

The word atom is derived from the Greek word atom which means indivisible. The Greeks concluded that matter could be broken down into particles to small to be seen. These particles were called atoms

Atoms are composed of three type of particles: protons, neutrons, and electron. Protons and neutrons are responsible for most of the atomic mass e.g in a 150 person 149 lbs, 15 oz are protons and neutrons while only 1 oz. is electrons. The mass of an electron is very small (9.108 X 10-28 grams).

Both the protons and neutrons reside in the nucleus. Protons have a postive (+) charge, neutrons have no charge --they are neutral. Electrons reside in orbitals around the nucleus. They have a negative charge (-).

It is the number of protons that determines the atomic number, e.g., H = 1. The number of protons in an element is constant (e.g., H=1, Ur=92) but neutron number may vary, so mass number (protons + neutrons) may vary.

The same element may contain varying numbers of neutrons; these forms of an element are called isotopes. The chemical properties of isotopes are the same, although the physical properties of some isotopes may be different. Some isotopes are radioactive-meaning they "radiate" energy as they decay to a more stable form, perhaps another element half-life: time required for half of the atoms of an element to decay into stable form. Another example is oxygen, with atomic number of 8 can have 8, 9, or 10 neutrons.

What are elements?

All matter is made up of elements which are fundamental substances which cannot be broken down by chemical means. There are 92 elements that occur naturally. The elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are the elements that make up most living organisms. Some other elements found in living organisms are: magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium.

By the late 1800's many elements had already been discovered. The scientist Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, proposed an arrangement of know elements based on their atomic mass. The modern arrangement of the elements is known as the Periodic Table of Elements and is arranged according to the atomic number of elements.

Here is an Interactive Table of Elements where you can learn more about each of the elements.

What makes each element unique?

Every atom would like to have an electron configuration like a noble gases. In noble gases the outer electron shell is complete. This makes the element chemically inert. Helium is an example of a noble (inert) gas. It is not present in organisms because it is not chemically reactive.

Historical Models of the atom


Bohr model shows electrons circling the nucleus at different levels or orbitals much like planets circle the sun. Electrons move from one energy state to another but can only exist aft defineite energy levels. The energy absorbed or released when electrons change states is in the form of electromagnetic radiation.


The Bohr model was only able to explain the very simplest atoms, like hydrogen. Today's modern day theory is based on mathematics and the properties of waves. The wave model forms the basis for the Quantum Theory

. This theory gives the probability of locating electrons in a particular location, unlike assuming electrons orbit the nucleus as in the Bohr model.

How are electrons organized around the nucleus?

All atoms would like to attain electron configurations like noble gases. That is, have completed outer shells. Atoms can form stable electron configurations like noble gases


  1. losing electrons
  2. sharing electrons
  3. gaining electrons.

For a stable configuration each atom must fill its outer energy level. In the case of noble gases that means eight electrons in the last shell (with the exception of He which has two electrons).

Atoms that have 1, 2 or 3 electrons in their outer levels will tend to lose them in interactions with atoms that have 5, 6 or 7 electrons in their outer levels. Atoms that have 5, 6 or 7 electrons in their outer levels will tend to gain electrons from atoms with 1, 2 or 3 electrons in their outer levels. Atoms that have 4 electrons in the outer most energy level will tend neither to totally lose nor totally gain electrons during interactions.

The Periodic Table of Elements will show you the electron configuration for any element you click on.

Visualizing Atomic Orbitals

The atomic orbitals of the hydrogen atom can be visualized as a cloud around the nucleus. The orbital represents a probability of finding the electron at a particular location. Darker regions signify a greater probability. Shown below are the 1s (lowest orbital and the 2s orbital.


Atomic orbitals do not always have the shape of a sphere. Higher orbitals have very unusual shapes.


These orbitals were prepared by Dr. Yue-Ling Wong from the University of Florida for more images click here.

Remember molecular orbitals are 3-Dimensional

3D models of atomic orbitals

To view these VRML images you will need a viewer such as WebSpace

Here is more information on:

Model of the Atom

The Structure within the Atom

Visualization of atomic orbitals.

Quantum Theory


There is much research going on about atoms at colleges and in private industry. Interested students are urged to view the following sites.

Manipulation of Atoms and Molecules

Atoms Research at the Department of Physics, UWA

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