What is the Atom Made of?

Did you ever see the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man”? If you have, did you ever wonder what would happen to him when he gets so small that he would be the size of an atom? And if so, could he get any smaller?

Maybe we have the answer because atoms are particles that exist in nature that cannot be broken down any further into smaller components. Everything we see around us is made of atoms, from tables and chairs to people and pandas. 

What Makes Up the Atom?

Illustration of the Atom
Atoms consist of three basic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nucleus. This atom has a neutral charge as it contains the same amount of protons and electrons. Photo: iStock

Comparatively speaking, atoms contain mostly empty space, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they are not important. The components of the atom and what makes up the atom are fundamental to our understanding of how matter is assembled. That includes living organisms, both here on earth and elsewhere. 

Now let’s talk about the components. A typical atom consists of a nucleus in its center. This nucleus contains neutrons and protons (together they’re called nucleons). Protons have a positive charge. Neutrons have neither positive nor negative charges. They are ‘neutral’.

Surrounding the nucleus are electrons, which are bodies outside of the nucleus and orbit around it, the same as our planets orbit their sun. Besides the size difference in this comparison, the only major difference is that the planets orbit the sun because of gravity, and electrons orbit their nucleus because of magnetism.

The Electron

An electron orbits the nucleus of the atom. The are negatively charged particles. The electrons are the only particles outside of the atom’s nucleus.

Neutral Atoms

A neutral atom doesn’t have any charge, so it doesn’t interact with other atoms. You can think of it as a bag of protons, neutrons, and electrons that just float around in space. Most neutral atoms are made up of an equal number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. For example, hydrogen has one proton, one neutron, and one electron. Helium atoms have two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons. This is why we usually refer to these atoms as neutral.

Ions

Any time an atom loses or gains an electron, it becomes charged. If it loses an electron, it becomes positively charged. because there are more protons in the atom than electrons. If it gains an electron, it becomes negatively charged. 

When atoms gain or lose a particle, they can bond together with other ions to form other elements.

Let’s also state that regardless of the number of electrons or protons that are lost or gained, the ‘makeup’ of the atom is associated to the number of protons as we will see below. 

The Proton 

Periodic table
Image by Calua from Pixabay

Protons are mainly found in the nucleus, although a few may be found in the outer electron orbit. The number of protons in an atom is what makes it what it is. For example, the elements in the periodic table have numbers associated with them. The number on the upper right corner defines its atomic number; that is, it tells us the number of protons in that element. Atomic weight is the number of protons and neutrons together.

Neutrons

The neutron’s only job is to protect the proton from becoming too positively charged. It doesn’t matter if the atom has too many or too few neutrons; it’s fine either way. The neutron doesn’t interact with electrons or anything else outside the nucleus, so it’s usually just along for the ride.

All Together Now

The negative charge of the electrons and the positive charge of the protons are what maintain the orbit of the electrons around the nucleus. This is referred to as an electrostatic charge, or electromagnetic force, or to put it another way, it is the attraction of the positive charge from the negative charge of the electrons that causes this orbit to exist.

Now, let’s drill down to more specifics of the atom’s components and how their respective charges make up different types of atoms. 

Conclusion

Atoms are the smallest particles of matter that cannot be broken down into smaller components. Everything we see around us is made of atoms. Atoms are mostly empty spaces, but they’re fundamental to our understanding of how matter works. A typical atom consists of a nucleus with neutrons and protons (together called nucleons) inside it, as well as electrons that orbit the nucleus. The electrons have a negative charge; the nucleons have a positive charge. 

Neutral atoms are made up of an equal number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Ionic compounds are made up of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons, and they have a strong attraction to other atoms and molecules. Electrons are negatively charged particles that orbit the nucleus, making them useful tools. Atoms are the building blocks of everything in the universe, and they are fundamental to our understanding of how matter works.

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