The Size of an Atom: How Scientists First Guessed It’s About Quantum Physics

Atoms are all about a tenth of a billionth of a meter wide (give or take a factor of 2). What determines an atom’s size? This was on the minds of scientists at the turn of the 20th century. The particle called the “electron” had been discovered, but the rest of an atom was a mystery. Today we’ll look at how scientists realized that quantum physics, an idea which was still very new, plays a central role. (They did this using one of their favorite strategies: “dimensional analysis”, which I described in a recent post.)

Since atoms are electrically neutral, the small and negatively charged electrons in an atom had to be accompanied by something with the same amount of positive charge — what we now call “the nucleus”. Among many imagined visions for what atoms might be like was the 1904 model of J.J. Thompson, in which he imagined the electrons are embedded within a positively-charged sphere the size of the whole atom.

But Thompson’s former student Ernest Rutherford gradually disproved this model in 1909-1911, through experiments that showed the nucleus is tens of thousands of times smaller (in radius) than an atom, despite having most of the atom’s mass.

Once you know that electrons and atomic nuclei are both tiny, there’s an obvious question: why is an atom so much larger than either one? Here’s the logical problem”

  • Negatively charged particles attract positively charged ones. If the nucleus is smaller than the atom, why don’t the electrons find themselves pulled inward, thus shrinking the atom down to the size of that nucleus?
  • Well, the Sun and planets are tiny compared to the solar system as a whole, and gravity is an attractive force. Why aren’t the planets pulled into the Sun? It’s because they’re moving, in orbit. So perhaps the electrons are in orbit around the nucleus, much as planets orbit a star?
  • This analogy doesn’t work. Unlike planets, electrons orbiting a nucleus would be expected to emit ample electromagnetic waves (i.e. light, both visible and invisible), and thereby lose so much energy that they’d spiral into the nucleus in a fraction of a second.

(These statements about the radiated waves from planets and electrons can be understood with very little work, using — you guessed it — dimensional analysis! Maybe I’ll show you that in the comments if I have time.)

So there’s a fundamental problem here.

  • The tiny nucleus, with most of the atom’s mass, must be sitting in the middle of the atom.
  • If the tiny electrons aren’t moving around, they’ll just fall straight into the nucleus.
  • If they are moving around, they’ll radiate light and quickly spiral into the nucleus.

Either way, this would lead us to expect

  • Rnucleus = # Ratom

where # is not too, too far from 1. (This is the most naive of all dimensional analysis arguments: two radii in the same physical system shouldn’t be that different.) This is in contradiction to experiment, which tells us that # is about 1/100,000! So it seems dimensional analysis has failed.

Or is it we who have failed? Are we missing something, which, once included, will restore our confidence in dimensional analysis?

We are missing quantum physics, and in particular Planck’s constant h. When we include h into our dimensional analysis, a new possible size appears in our equations, and this sets the size of an atom. Details below.

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