What is an Atom?

Structure of a beryllium atom: four protons, four neutrons and four electrons.
(Image credit: general-fmv Shutterstock)

Atoms are the basic units of matter and the defining structure of elements. The term "atom" comes from the Greek word for indivisible, because it was once thought that atoms were the smallest things in the universe and could not be divided. We now know that atoms are made up of three particles: protons, neutrons and electrons — which are composed of even smaller particles such as quarks.

Atoms were created after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. As the hot, dense new universe cooled, conditions became suitable for quarks and electrons to form. Quarks came together to form protons and neutrons, and these particles combined into nuclei. This all took place within the first few minutes of the universe's existence, according to CERN.

It took 380,000 years for the universe to cool down enough to slow down the electrons so that the nuclei could capture them to form the first atoms. The earliest atoms were primarily hydrogen and helium, which are still the most abundant elements in the universe. Gravity eventually caused clouds of gas to coalesce and form stars, and heavier atoms were (and still are) created within the stars and sent throughout the universe when the star exploded (supernova).

Atomic particles

Protons and neutrons are heavier than electrons and reside in the nucleus at the center of the atom. Electrons are extremely lightweight and exist in a cloud orbiting the nucleus. The electron cloud has a radius 10,000 times greater than the nucleus.

Protons and neutrons have approximately the same mass. However, one proton weighs more than 1,800 electrons. Atoms always have an equal number of protons and electrons, and the number of protons and neutrons is usually the same as well. Adding a proton to an atom makes a new element, while adding a neutron makes an isotope, or heavier version, of that atom.


The nucleus was discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford, a physicist from New Zealand, who in 1920 proposed the name proton for the positively charged particles of the atom. Rutherford also theorized that there was also a neutral particle within the nucleus, which James Chadwick, a British physicist and student of Rutherford, was able to confirm in 1932.

Virtually all the mass of the atom resides in the nucleus. The protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus are approximately the same mass (the proton is slightly less) and have the same angular momentum, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

The nucleus is held together by the "strong force," one of the four basic forces in nature. This force between the protons and neutrons overcomes the repulsive electrical force that would, according to the rules of electricity, push the protons apart otherwise. Some atomic nuclei are unstable because the binding force varies for different atoms based on the size of the nucleus. These atoms will then decay into other elements, such as carbon-14 decaying into nitrogen-14.


Protons are positively charged particles found within atomic nuclei. Rutherford discovered them in experiments with cathode-ray tubes conducted between 1911 and 1919. Protons are slightly smaller in mass than neutrons with a relative mass of 0.9986 (as compared with the mass of the neutron being 1) or about 1.673x10-27 kg.

The number of protons in an atom defines what element it is. For example, carbon atoms have six protons, hydrogen atoms have one and oxygen atoms have eight. The number of protons in an atom is referred to as the atomic number of that element. The number of protons in an atom also determines the chemical behavior of the element. The Periodic Table of the Elements arranges elements in order of increasing atomic number.

Three quarks make up each proton — two "up" quarks (each with a 2/3 positive charge) and one "down" quark (with a 1/3 negative charge) — and they are held together by other subatomic particles called gluons, which are massless.


Electrons are tiny compared to protons and neutrons, over 1,800 times smaller than either a proton or a neutron. Electrons have a relative mass of 0.0005439 (as compared with the mass of a neutron being 1) or about 9.109x10-31 kg. 

J.J. Thomson, a British physicist, discovered the electron in 1897. Originally known as "corpuscles," electrons have a negative charge and are electrically attracted to the positively charged protons. Electrons surround the atomic nucleus in pathways called orbitals, an idea that was put forth by Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, in the 1920s. Today, this model is known as the quantum model or the electron cloud model. The inner orbitals surrounding the atom are spherical but the outer orbitals are much more complicated.

An atom's electron configuration is the orbital description of the locations of the electrons in a typical atom. Using the electron configuration and principles of physics, chemists can predict an atom's properties, such as stability, boiling point and conductivity.

Typically, only the outermost electron shells matter in chemistry. The inner electron shell notation is often truncated by replacing the longhand orbital description with the symbol for a noble gas in brackets. This method of notation vastly simplifies the description for large molecules.

For example, the electron configuration for beryllium (Be) is 1s22s2, but it's is written [He]2s2. [He] is equivalent to all the electron orbitals in a helium atom. The letters, s, p, d, and f designate the shape of the orbitals and the superscript gives the number of electrons in that orbital. Uranium, as another example, has an electron configuration of 1s22s22p63s23p64s23d104p65s24d105p66s24e145d106p67s25f4, which can be simplified to [RN]7s25f4.


The neutron is used as a comparison to find the relative mass of protons and electrons (so it has a relative mass of 1) and has a physical mass of 1.6749x10-27 kg.

The neutron's existence was theorized by Rutherford in 1920 and discovered by Chadwick in 1932. Neutrons were found during experiments when atoms were shot at a thin sheet of beryllium. Subatomic particles with no charge were released – the neutron.

Neutrons are uncharged particles found within all atomic nuclei (except for hydrogen-1). A neutron's mass is slightly larger than that of a proton. Like protons, neutrons are also made of quarks — one "up" quark (with a positive 2/3 charge) and two "down" quarks (each with a negative 1/3 charge). 


The number of neutrons in a nucleus determines the isotope of that element. For example, hydrogen has three known isotopes: protium, deuterium and tritium. Protium, symbolized as 1H, is just ordinary hydrogen; it has one proton and one electron and no neutrons. Deuterium (D or 2H) has one proton, one electron and one neutron. Tritium (T or 3H) has one proton, one electron and two neutrons.

History of the atom

The theory of the atom dates at least as far back as 440 B.C. to Democritus, a Greek scientist and philosopher. Democritus most likely built his theory of atoms upon the work of past philosophers, according to Andrew G. Van Melsen, author of "From Atomos to Atom: The History of the Concept Atom." For example, Parmenides, Democritus' teacher, is known for proposing the principle of identity. This principle, which states that "all that is, together forms the being," led to other philosophers, including Democritus, to further his work, eventually leading to atomic theory.

Democritus' explanation of the atom begins with a stone. A stone cut in half gives two halves of the same stone. If the stone were to be continuously cut, at some point there would exist a piece of the stone small enough that it could no longer be cut. The term "atom" comes from the Greek word for indivisible, which Democritus concluded must be the point at which a being (any form of matter) cannot be divided any more. His explanation included the ideas that atoms exist separately from each other, that there are an infinite amount of atoms, that atoms are able to move, that they can combine together to create matter but do not merge to become a new atom, and that they cannot be divided. However, because most philosophers at the time — especially the very influential Aristotle — believed that all matter was created from earth, air, fire, and water, Democritus' atomic theory was put aside.

John Dalton, an British chemist, built upon Democritus' ideas in 1803 when he put forth his own atomic theory, according to the chemistry department at Purdue University. Dalton's theory included several ideas from Democritus, such as atoms are indivisible and indestructible and that different atoms form together to create all matter. Dalton's additions to the theory included the ideas that all atoms of a certain element were identical, that atoms of one element will have different weights and properties than atoms of another element, that atoms cannot be created or destroyed, and that matter is formed by atoms combining in simple whole numbers.

Thomson, the British physicist who discovered the electron in 1897, proved that atoms actually can be divided, according to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He was able to determine the existence of the negatively charged particles by studying properties of electric discharge in cathode-ray tubes. According to Thomson’s 1897 paper, the rays were deflected within the tube, which proved that there is something that was negatively charged within the vacuum tube. In 1899, Thomson published a description of his version of the atom, commonly known as the "plum pudding model," according to a 2013 article by Giora Hon and Bernard R. Goldstein published in the journal Annalen der Physik. Thomson's model of the atom included a large number of electrons suspended in something that produced a positive charge giving the atom an overall neutral charge, which resembled a popular British dessert that had raisins suspended in a round cake-like ball.

The next scientist to further modify and progress the atomic model was Rutherford, who studied under Thomson, according to the chemistry department at Purdue University. In 1911, Rutherford published his version of the atom, which included a positively charged nucleus that is orbited by electrons. This model arose when Rutherford and his assistants fired alpha particles at very thin sheets of gold. (An alpha particle is made up of two protons and two neutrons, all held together by the same strong nuclear force that binds the nucleus of any atom, according to the Jefferson Lab.) 

The scientists noticed that a small percentage of the alpha particles were scattered at very large angles to the original direction of motion while the majority passed right through hardly disturbed. Rutherford was able to approximate the size of the nucleus of the gold atom, finding it to be at least 10,000 times smaller than the size of the entire atom with much of the atom being empty space. Rutherford's model of the atom is still the basic model that is used today, despite its limitations.

Several other scientists furthered the atomic model, including Niels Bohr (built upon Rutherford's model to include properties of electrons based on the hydrogen spectrum), Erwin Schrödinger (developed the quantum model of the atom), Werner Heisenberg (stated that one cannot know both the position and velocity of an electron simultaneously), and Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig (independently developed the theory that protons and neutrons were composed of quarks). 

Additional reporting by Rachel Ross, Live Science Contributor

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