Subatomic Particles

Fine Structure Constant

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Not long ago, scientists believed that the smallest part of matter was the atom; the indivisible, indestructible, base unit of all things. However, it was not long before scientists began to encounter problems with this model, problems arising out of the study of radiation, the laws of thermodynamics, and electrical charges. All of these problems forced them to reconsider their previous assumptions about the atom being the smallest unit of matter and to postulate that atoms themselves were made up of a variety of particles, each of which had a particular charge, function, or “flavor”. These they began to refer to as Subatomic Particles, which are now believed to be the smallest units of matter, ones that composenucleons and atoms.

Whereas protons, neutrons and electrons have always been considered to be the fundamental particles of an atom, recent discoveries using atomic accelerators have shown that there are actually twelve different kinds of elementary subatomic particles, and that protons and neutrons are actually made up of smaller subatomic particles. These twelve particles are divided into two categories, known as Leptons and Quarks. There are six different kinds, or “flavors”, of quarks (named because of their unusual behavior). These include up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom quark, each of which possesses a charge that is expressed as a fraction (+2/3 for up, top and charm,-1/3 for down, bottom and strange) and have variable masses. There are also six different types of Leptons, which include Electrons, Muons, Taus, Electron Neutrinos, Muon Neutrinos, and Tau Neutrinos. Whereas electrons and Muons both have a negative charge of -1 (Muons having greater mass), Neutrinos have no charge and are extremely difficult to detect.

In addition to elementary particles, composite particles are another category of subatomic particles. Whereas elementary particles are not made up of other particles, composite particlesare bound states of two or more elementary particles, such as protons or atomic nuclei. For example, a proton is made of two Up quarks and one Down quark, while the atomic nucleus of helium-4 is composed of two protons and two neutrons.In addition, there are also the subatomic particles that fall under the heading of Gauge Bosons, which were identified using the same methods as Leptons and Quarks. These are classified as “force carriers”, i.e. particles that act as carriers for the fundamental forces of nature. These include photons that are associated with electromagnetism, gravitons that are associated with gravity, the three W and Z bosons of weak nuclear forces, and the eight gluons of strong nuclear forces. Scientists also predict the existence of several more, what they refer to as “hypothetical” particles, so the list is expected to grow.

Today, there are literally hundreds of known subatomic particles, most of which were either the result of cosmic rays interacting with matter or particle accelerator experiments.

We have written many articles about the subatomic particles for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the atomic nucleus, and here’s an article about the atomic theory.

If you’d like more info on the Atom, check out the Background on Atoms, and here’s a link to the NASA’s Understanding the Atom Page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Composition of the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subatomic_particle
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucleon
http://www.school-for-champions.com/science/subatomic.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gauge_boson
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_particles

Atomic number

Fine Structure Constant

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Ever wonder why the periodic table of elements is organized the way it is? Why, for example, does Hydrogen come first? And just what are these numbers that are used to sort them all? They are known as the element’s atomic number, and in the periodic table of elements, the atomic number of an element is the same as the number of protons contained within its nucleus. For example, Hydrogen atoms, which have one proton in their nucleuses, are given an atomic number of one. All carbon atoms contain six protons and therefore have an atomic number of 6. Oxygen atoms contain 8 protons and have an atomic number of 8, and so on. The atomic number of an element never changes, meaning that the number of protons in the nucleus of every atom in an element is always the same.

Arranging elements based on their atomic weight began with Ernest Rutherford in 1911. It was he who first suggested the model for an atom where the majority of its mass and positive charge was contained in a core. This central charge would be roughly equal to half of the atoms total atomic weight. Antonius van den Broek added to this by formerly suggesting that the central charge and number of electrons were equal. Two years later, Henry Moseley and Niels Bohr made further contributions that helped to confirm this. The Bohr model of the atom had the central charge contained in its core, with its electrons circulating it in orbit, much like how the planet in the solar system orbit the sun. Moseley was able to confirm these two hypotheses through experimentation, measuring the wavelengths of photon transitions of various elements while they were inside an x-ray tube. Working with elements from aluminum (which has an atomic number thirteen) to gold (seventy nine), he was able to show that the frequency of these transitions increased with each element studied.

In short, the higher the atomic number (aka. the higher the number of protons), the heavier the element is and the lower it appears on the periodic table. The atomic number of an element is conventionally represented by the symbol Z in physics and chemistry. This is presumably derived from the German word Atomzahl, which means atomic number in English. It is not to be confused with the mass number, which is represented by A. This corresponds to the combined mass of protons and neutrons in the element.

We have written many articles about the atomic number for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the atomic nucleus, and here’s an article about the Atom Models.

If you’d like more info on the Atomic Number, check out NASA’s Atoms and Light Energy Page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Atomic Numbers and Multiplying Factors Page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

Sources:
NDT Resource Center
Jefferson Lab
Wise Geek
Wiki Answers

What Is Atomic Mass

Faraday's Constant

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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.

Sources:
Wikipedia
Windows to Universe
NDT Resource Center

What Is An Electron

Faraday's Constant

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What is an electron? Easily put, an electron is a subatomic particle that carries a negative electric charge. There are no known components, so it is believed to be an elementary particle(basic building block of the universe). The mass of an electron is 1/1836 of its proton. Electrons have an antiparticle called a positron. Positrons are identical to electrons except that all of its properties are the exact opposite. When electrons and positrons collide, they can be destroyed and will produce a pair (or more) of gamma ray photons. Electrons have gravitational, electromagnetic, and weak interactions.

In 1913, Niels Bohr postulated that electrons resided in quantized energy states, with the energy determined by the spin(angular momentum)of the electron’s orbits and that the electrons could move between these orbits by the emission or absorption of photons. These orbits explained the spectral lines of the hydrogen atom. The Bohr model failed to account for the relative intensities of the spectral lines and it was unsuccessful in explaining the spectra of more complex atom. Gilbert Lewis proposed in 1916 that a ‘covalent bond’ between two atoms is maintained by a pair of shared electrons. In 1919, Irving Langmuir improved on Lewis’ static model and suggested that all electrons were distributed in successive “concentric(nearly) spherical shells, all of equal thickness”. The shells were divided into a number of cells containing one pair of electrons. This model was able to qualitatively explain the chemical properties of all elements in the periodic table.

The invariant mass of an electron is 9.109×10-31 or 5.489×10-4 of the atomic mass unit. According to Einstein’s principle of mass-energy equivalence, this mass corresponds to a rest energy of .511MeV. Electrons have an electric charge of -1.602×10 coulomb. This a standard unit of charge for subatomic particles. The electron charge is identical to the charge of a proton. In addition to spin, the electron has an intrinsic magnetic moment along its spin axis. It is approximately equal to one Bohr magneton. The orientation of the spin with respect to the momentum of the electron defines the property of elementary particles known as helicity. Observing a single electron shows the upper limit of the particle’s radius is 10-22 meters. Some elementary particles decay into less massive particles. But an electron is thought to be stable on the grounds that it is the least massive particle with non-zero electric charge.

Understanding what is an electron is to begin to understand the basic building blocks of the universe. A very elementary understanding, but a building block to great scientific thought.

We have written many articles about the electron for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Electron Cloud Model, and here’s an article about the charge of electron.

If you’d like more info on the Electron, check out the History of the Electron Page, and here’s a link to the article about Killer Electrons.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Composition of the Atom. Listen here, Episode 164: Inside the Atom.

Atomic Radius

Faraday's Constant

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If you can imagine an atom, of an element, as a sphere, then the radius of that sphere would be the atomic radius of that element. However, as atoms are things far better described using quantum mechanics than classical physics, the definition – even the concept – of atomic radius is tricky (and, in fact, there are actually several different definitions!).

Start with the Bohr atomic model, and an atom of hydrogen. In this model, the atomic radius (Bohr radius) is related to the lowest energy level of the electron, and has an exact value which involves Planck’s constant, the fine structure constant, c (speed of light), and the mass of the electron ( h/(2πcαme) – approx 53 pm … that’s picometers, trillionths of a meter, in case you were wondering). Although the Bohr model of the atom is no longer used, except in teaching, the Bohr atom radius for hydrogen is a key physical constant.

If you have a crystal, of a salt, you can study it with x-rays, and work out how far apart the entities in the crystal lattice are; those entities are ions (not atoms), so the atomic radii estimated this way are called ionic radii. No surprise that the ionic radii of a particular element depend on the ionization state of the ions!

In a metal, one or more outer electrons become part of the sea of electrons throughout the metal, which give the metal its high electrical conductivity. The atomic radii of metal atoms in this environment are called metallic radii.

By now you should be able to guess what the covalent radius is (in molecules with covalent bonds, the atomic radii are estimated from the bond lengths), and what the Van der Waals radius is (if two atoms are not bound in a molecule, the minimum distance between them is determined by the Van der Waals force, and radii estimated this way are …).

Chemguide, a UK site, has a nice intro, Atomic and Ionic Radius; this Frostburg State University page is a bit more advanced ; and here is a list of the elements, sorted by atomic radius.

Astronomy Cast episodes relevant to this topic include Quantum Mechanics, Wave Particle Duality, and Inside the Atom.

Atomic Mass

Faraday's Constant

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The mass of an atom is its atomic mass (duh!).

Actually, it’s worth looking into this a bit more deeply … it’s not as simple as the “duh!” implies …

An atom is made up of protons (at least one), neutrons (except for hydrogen), and electrons (at least one), so its mass is simply the total of the masses of protons, neutrons, and electrons, right? Wrong … the nucleus of any atom (except hydrogen) is held together by the strong nuclear force, and the electrons are bound to the atom by the electromagnetic force; it takes energy to break up a nucleus, and energy to free an electron from an atom … and mass and energy are related (remember E = mc2?); the stronger the binding, the more the mass of an atom differs from the sum of the masses of its individual components!

Also, there’s atomic weight (atomic mass applies to each isotope of an element; atomic weight is an average, for each element, of the atomic masses of the isotopes … weighted by their relative abundance); relative atomic mass (a synonym for atomic weight, and also – confusingly – the small difference between standard atomic weight and the atomic weight of a particular sample!); and … you get the idea.

Atomic mass is usually measured in atomic mass units (no, no “duh!” this time, as you’ll see), which is defined as 1/12th of the mass of an isolated carbon-12 atom, at rest, in its ground state … and this is the unified atomic mass unit (symbol u), to distinguish it from the older atomic mass unit (amu). Why? Why go to all this trouble? Because there are actually two different amu’s! And both are different from u!! Both are based on oxygen (rather than carbon); one on the oxygen-16 isotope, the other on oxygen, the mixture of isotopes.

Tricky.

More on atomic mass: from NASA Atoms, Elements, and Isotopes; The Mass Spectrometer of the Galileo Probe , and this Lawrence Berkeley National Lab webpage.

Are there any Universe Today stories featuring atomic mass? Sure! Mini-Detector Could Find Life on Mars or Anthrax at the Airport, Super-Neutron Stars are Possible, and Learning to Breathe Mars Air, to give just three examples.

Are there any Astronomy Cast episodes on atomic mass? Sure! Inside the Atom, and Energy Levels and Spectra, to give just two examples.

How Many Atoms Are There in the Universe?

It’s no secret that the universe is an extremely vast place. That which we can observe (aka. “the known Universe”) is estimated to span roughly  93 billion light years. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially when you consider its only what we’ve observed so far. And given the sheer volume of that space, one would expect that the amount of matter contained within would be similarly impressive.

But interestingly enough, it is when you look at that matter on the smallest of scales that the numbers become the most mind-boggling. For example, it is believed that between 120 to 300 sextillion (that’s 1.2 x 10²³ to 3.0 x 10²³) stars exist within our observable universe. But looking closer, at the atomic scale, the numbers get even more inconceivable.

At this level, it is estimated that the there are between 1078 to 1082 atoms in the known, observable universe. In layman’s terms, that works out to between ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms.

And yet, those numbers don’t accurately reflect how much matter the universe may truly house. As stated already, this estimate accounts only for the observable universe which reaches 46 billion light years in any direction, and is based on where the expansion of space has taken the most distant objects observed.

The history of theA billion years after the big bang, hydrogen atoms were mysteriously torn apart into a soup of ions.universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com
The history of the universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com

While a German supercomputer recently ran a simulation and estimated that around 500 billion galaxies exist within range of observation, a more conservative estimate places the number at around 300 billion. Since the number of stars in a galaxy can run up to 400 billion, then the total number of stars may very well be around 1.2×1023  – or just over 100 sextillion.

On average, each star can weigh about 1035 grams. Thus, the total mass would be about 1058 grams (that’s 1.0 x 1052 metric tons). Since each gram of matter is known to have about 1024 protons, or about the same number of hydrogen atoms (since one hydrogen atom has only one proton), then the total number of hydrogen atoms would be roughly 1086 – aka. one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion.

Within this observable universe, this matter is spread homogeneously throughout space, at least when averaged over distances longer than 300 million light-years. On smaller scales, however, matter is observed to form into the clumps of hierarchically-organized luminous matter that we are all familiar with.

In short, most atoms are condensed into stars, most stars are condensed into galaxies, most galaxies into clusters, most clusters into superclusters and, finally, into the largest-scale structures like the Great Wall of galaxies (aka. the Sloan Great Wall). On a smaller scale, these clumps are permeated by clouds of dust particles, gas clouds, asteroids, and other small clumps of stellar matter.

Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.
Representation of the timeline of the universe over 13.7 billion years, and the expansion in the universe that followed. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

The observable matter of the Universe is also spread isotropically; meaning that no direction of observation seems different from any other and each region of the sky has roughly the same content. The Universe is also bathed in a wave of highly isotropic microwave radiation that corresponds to a thermal equilibrium of roughly 2.725 kelvin (just above Absolute Zero).

The hypothesis that the large-scale universe is homogeneous and isotropic is known as the cosmological principle. This states that physical laws act uniformly throughout the universe and should, therefore, produce no observable irregularities in the large scale structure. This theory has been backed up by astronomical observations which have helped to chart the evolution of the structure of the universe since it was initially laid down by the Big Bang.

The current consensus amongst scientists is that the vast majority of matter was created in this event, and that the expansion of the Universe since has not added new matter to the equation. Rather, it is believed that what has been taking place for the past 13.7 billion years has simply been an expansion or dispersion of the masses that were initially created. That is, no amount of matter that wasn’t there in the beginning has been added during this expansion.

However, Einstein’s  equivalence of mass and energy presents a slight complication to this theory. This is a consequence arising out of Special Relativity, in which the addition of energy to an object increases its mass incrementally. Between all the fusions and fissions, atoms are regularly converted from particles to energies and back again.

Atom density is greater at left (the beginning of the experiment) than 80 milliseconds after the simulated Big Bang. Credit: Chen-Lung Hung
Atom density is greater at left (the beginning of the experiment) than 80 milliseconds after the simulated Big Bang. Credit: Chen-Lung Hung

Nevertheless, observed on a large-scale, the overall matter density of the universe remains the same over time. The present density of the observable universe is estimated to be very low – roughly 9.9 × 10-30 grams per cubic centimeter. This mass-energy appears to consist of 68.3% dark energy, 26.8% dark matter and just 4.9% ordinary (luminous) matter. Thus the density of atoms is on the order of a single hydrogen atom for every four cubic meters of volume.

The properties of dark energy and dark matter are largely unknown, and could be uniformly distributed or organized in clumps like normal matter. However, it is believed that dark matter gravitates as ordinary matter does, and thus works to slow the expansion of the Universe. By contrast, dark energy accelerates its expansion.

Once again, this number is just a rough estimate. When used to estimate the total mass of the Universe, it often falls short of what other estimates predict. And in the end, what we see is just a smaller fraction of the whole.

We’ve got a many articles that are related to the amount of matter in the Universe here in Universe Today, like How Many Galaxies in the Universe, and How Many Stars are in the Milky Way?

NASA also has the following articles on the universe, like How many galaxies are there? and this article on the Stars in Our Galaxy.

We also have podcast episodes from Astronomy Cast on the subject of Galaxies and Variable Stars.