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If you have heard of electrons you know that they have something to do with electricity and atoms. If so you are mostly right in describing what are electrons. Electrons are the subatomic particles that orbit the nucleus of an atom. They are generally negative in charge and are much smaller than the nucleus of the atom. If you wanted a proper size comparison the size of the earth in comparison to the sun would be a pretty close visualization.
Electrons are known to fall into orbits or energy levels. These orbits are not visible paths like the orbit of a planet or celestial body. The reason is that atoms are notoriously small and the best microscopes can only view so much of atoms at that scale. Even if we could view electrons they would move too fast for the human eye. As a matter of fact scientists still can’t calculate the exact position of electrons. They can only estimate their locations. That is why the modern model of the atoms has an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom instead of a defined system of electrons in concentric orbits.
Electrons are also important for the bonding of individual atoms together. With out this bonding force between atoms matter would not be able to interact in the many reactions and forms we see every day. This interaction between the outer electron layers of an atom is call atomic bonding. It can occur in two forms. One is covalent bonding where atoms share electrons in their outer orbits. The other is ionic bonding where an atom gives up electrons to another atom. In either case bonding must meet specific rules. We won’t go into great detail, but each electron orbit or electron energy level can only hold so many electrons. Atoms can only bond if there is room to share or receive extra electrons on the outermost orbit of the atom.
Electrons are also important to electricity. Electricity is basically the exchange of electrons in a stream called a current through a conducting medium. In most cases the medium is an acid, metal, or similar conductor. In the case of static electricity, a stream of electrons travels through the medium of air.
The understanding of the electron has allowed for a better understanding of some of the most important forces in our universe such as the electromagnetic force. Understanding its workings has allowed scientist to work out concepts such potential difference and the relationship between electrical and magnetic fields.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.