The answer to ‘what is atomic mass’ is this: the total mass of the protons, neutrons, and electrons in a single atom when it is at rest. This is not to be associated or mistaken for atomic weight. Atomic mass is measured by mass spectrometry. You can figure the molecular mass of an compound by adding the atomic mass of its atoms.
Until the 1960’s chemists and physicists used different atomic mass scales. Chemists used a scale that showed that the natural mixture of oxygen isotopes had an atomic mass 16. Physicists assigned 16 to the atomic mass of the most common oxygen isotope. Problems and inconsistencies arose because oxygen 17 and oxygen 18 are also present in natural oxygen. This created two different tables of atomic mass. A unified scale based on carbon-12 is used to meet the physicists’ need to base the scale on a pure isotope and is numerically close to the chemists’ scale.
Standard atomic weight is the average relative atomic mass of an element in the crust of Earth and its atmosphere. This is what is included in standard periodic tables. Atomic weight is being phased out slowly and being replaced by relative atomic mass. This shift in wording dates back to the 1960’s. It has been the source of much debate largely surrounding the adoption of the unified atomic mass unit and the realization that ‘weight’ can be an inappropriate term. Atomic weight is different from atomic mass in that it refers to the most abundant isotope in an element and atomic mass directly addresses a single atom or isotope.
Atomic mass and standard atomic weight can be so close, in elements with a single dominant isotope, that there is little difference when considering bulk calculations. Large variations can occur in elements with many common isotopes. Both have their place in science today. With advances in our knowledge, even these terms may become obsolete in the future.
We have written many articles about atomic mass for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the atomic nucleus, and here’s an article about the atomic models.
If you’d like more info on the Atomic Mass, check out NASA’s Article on Analyzing Tiny Samples, and here’s a link to NASA’s Article about Atoms, Elements, and Isotopes.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.