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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Rutherford and Bohr describe atomic structure

Photo: Niels Bohr's research notes for his new atomic theory

In 1911, Niels Bohr earned his PhD in Denmark with a dissertation on the electron theory of metals. Right afterwards, he went to England to study with J.J. Thomson, who had discovered the electron in 1897. Most physicists in the early years of the twentieth century were engrossed by the electron, such a new and fascinating discovery. Few concerned themselves much with the work of Max Planck or Albert Einstein. Thomson wasn't that interested in these new ideas, but Bohr had an open mind. Bohr soon went to visit Ernest Rutherford (a former student of Thomson's) in another part of England, where Rutherford had made a brand-new discovery about the atom.

Rutherford's find came from a very strange experience. Everyone at that time imagined the atom as a "plum pudding." That is, it was roughly the same consistency throughout, with negatively-charged electrons scattered about in it like raisins in a pudding. As part of an experiment with x-rays in 1909, Rutherford was shooting a beam of alpha particles (or alpha rays, emitted by the radioactive element radium) at a sheet of gold foil only 1/3000 of an inch thick, and tracing the particles' paths. Most of the particles went right through the foil, which would be expected if the atoms in the gold were like a plum pudding. But every now and then, a particle bounced back as though it had hit something solid. After tracing many particles and examining the patterns, Rutherford deduced that the atom must have nearly all its mass, and positive charge, in a central nucleus about 10,000 times smaller than the atom itself. All of the negative charge was held in the electrons, which must orbit the dense nucleus like planets around the sun.

In 1912 Bohr joined Rutherford. He realized that Rutherford's model wasn't quite right. By all rules of classical physics, it should be very unstable. For one thing, the orbiting electrons should give off energy and eventually spiral down into the nucleus, making the atom collapse. Or the electrons could be knocked out of position if a charged particle passed by. Bohr turned to Planck's quantum theory to explain the stability of most atoms. He found that the ratio of energy in electrons and the frequency of their orbits around the nucleus was equal to Planck's constant (the proportion of light's energy to its wave frequency, or approximately 6.626 x 10-23 ). Bohr suggested the revolutionary idea that electrons "jump" between energy levels (orbits) in a quantum fashion, that is, without ever existing in an in-between state. Thus when an atom absorbs or gives off energy (as in light or heat), the electron jumps to higher or lower orbits. Bohr published these ideas in 1913 to mixed reaction. Many people still hadn't accepted the idea of quanta, or they found other flaws in the theory because Bohr had based it on very simple atoms. But there was good evidence he was right: the electrons in his model lined up with the regular patterns (spectral series) of light emitted by real hydrogen atoms.

Bohr's theory that electrons existed in set orbits around the nucleus was the key to the periodic repetition of properties of the elements. The shells in which electrons orbit have different quantum numbers and hold only certain numbers of electrons -- the first shell holds no more than 2, the second shell up to 8, the third 10, the fourth 14. Atoms with less than the maximum number in their outer shells are less stable than those with "full" outer shells. Elements that have the same number of electrons in their outermost shells appear in the same column in the periodic table of elements and tend to have similar chemical properties.

Over the years other investigators refined Bohr's theory, but his bold application of new ideas paved the way for the development of quantum mechanics. Bohr went on to make enormous contributions to physics and, like Rutherford, to train a new generation of physicists. But his atomic model remains the best known work of a very long career.

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