What Is Inside an Atom?

Have you ever wondered about the composition of the world around you? When you take a closer look, you’ll realize that there are multiple levels at which you can examine things.

For instance, let’s consider the delicious campfire treat known as the s’more. What is it made of? That’s simple! It consists of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker. However, we can delve deeper.

What is chocolate made of? What exactly is a marshmallow? How were the graham crackers created? By examining the ingredients listed on a chocolate bar, a package of marshmallows, and a box of graham crackers, you’ll soon discover that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Scientists have long understood that this is true for everything in our surroundings: there is more than initially meets the eye. In fact, atoms, which are the smallest building blocks of matter, can only be observed using powerful electron microscopes.

An atom is the tiniest particle of an element that can exist independently. In other words, if you have a solid gold bar, the smallest particle that can still be considered gold is a single atom of gold.

Atoms consist of three fundamental particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Neutrons and protons make up the dense core of an atom called the nucleus, while electrons orbit around the nucleus in shells.

Neutrons have no charge, whereas electrons carry a negative charge and protons carry a positive charge. These charges are responsible for the electromagnetic force that keeps the electrons orbiting the nucleus.

Atoms are intriguing particles when you think about them. The majority of an atom’s mass comes from the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. However, due to the orbiting electrons, most of an atom is actually empty space! The nucleus only occupies approximately 1/10,000th of an atom’s size.

Atoms cannot be seen with the naked eye because of their minuscule size. Scientists have been able to study atoms using electron microscopes.

An atom has a diameter of approximately 1/10th of a nanometer, which is about 100,000 times thinner than the average human hair strand. If you were to line up 43 million iron atoms side by side, the resulting line would only measure one millimeter in length.

So, if all matter is composed of atoms, how do we obtain different elements? It all depends on the internal structure of atoms. Each element has atoms with a unique structure and a varying number of protons. For example, hydrogen atoms each have one proton, while carbon atoms have six protons.

Some elements even have multiple forms known as isotopes. These isotopes have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. For instance, hydrogen, which typically has no neutrons, has two isotopes: deuterium with one neutron and tritium with two neutrons.

Try It Out

Are you ready to take a peek inside an atom? Make sure to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

Explore the World of Atoms!

If you’re curious about what an atom might actually look like, you can now check out The First Image Ever of a Hydrogen Atom’s Orbital Structure online. This groundbreaking image, captured by scientists, provides a visual representation of the atom’s structure.

For a more interactive experience, you can play with the Atom interactive online. This interactive tool allows you to drag protons, neutrons, and electrons onto an atom template, helping you understand how different elements and isotopes are composed of these fundamental building blocks. See if you can create new elements!

If you’re eager to learn even more about atoms, the Atomic Structure tutorial online is a great resource. This tutorial covers the basics of atoms and provides in-depth information about subatomic particles and their interactions, which ultimately form all the matter around us. Dive deeper into the fascinating world of atoms!

Wonder Sources


1. What is an atom?

An atom is the basic unit of matter. It is the smallest particle of an element that retains the chemical properties of that element. Atoms are made up of three subatomic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

2. What is the structure of an atom?

An atom consists of a nucleus, which contains protons and neutrons, and electrons that orbit around the nucleus in energy levels or electron shells. The protons and neutrons are located in the nucleus, while the electrons occupy the electron shells.

3. What are protons, neutrons, and electrons?

Protons are positively charged particles found in the nucleus of an atom. Neutrons are neutral particles also found in the nucleus. Electrons are negatively charged particles that orbit around the nucleus in specific energy levels. Protons and neutrons have a mass of approximately 1 atomic mass unit (amu), while electrons have a negligible mass.

4. How do protons, neutrons, and electrons determine the properties of an atom?

The number of protons in an atom determines its atomic number and the type of element it is. Neutrons contribute to the stability of the nucleus and affect the atomic mass of an atom. Electrons determine the chemical behavior of an atom as they are involved in bonding and chemical reactions. The arrangement of electrons in the electron shells determines the chemical properties and reactivity of an atom.

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