The atomic theory, which holds that matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles in constant motion, was proposed in the 5th cent. B.C. by the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus and was adopted by the Roman Lucretius. However, Aristotle did not accept the theory, and it was ignored for many centuries. Interest in the atomic theory was revived during the 18th cent. following work on the nature and behavior of gases (see gas laws).
Modern atomic theory begins with the work of John Dalton, published in 1808. He held that all the atoms of an element are of exactly the same size and weight (see atomic weight) and are in these two respects unlike the atoms of any other element. He stated that atoms of the elements unite chemically in simple numerical ratios to form compounds. The best evidence for his theory was the experimentally verified law of simple multiple proportions, which gives a relation between the weights of two elements that combine to form different compounds.
Evidence for Dalton's theory also came from Michael Faraday's law of electrolysis. A major development was the periodic table, devised simultaneously by Dmitri Mendeleev and J. L. Meyer, which arranged atoms of different elements in order of increasing atomic weight so that elements with similar chemical properties fell into groups. By the end of the 19th cent. it was generally accepted that matter is composed of atoms that combine to form molecules.
In 1911, Ernest Rutherford developed the first coherent explanation of the structure of an atom. Using alpha particles emitted by radioactive atoms, he showed that the atom consists of a central, positively charged core, the nucleus, and negatively charged particles called electrons that orbit the nucleus. There was one serious obstacle to acceptance of the nuclear atom, however. According to classical theory, as the electrons orbit about the nucleus, they are continuously being accelerated (see acceleration), and all accelerated charges radiate electromagnetic energy. Thus, they should lose their energy and spiral into the nucleus.
This difficulty was solved by Niels Bohr (1913), who applied the quantum theory developed by Max Planck and Albert Einstein to the problem of atomic structure. Bohr proposed that electrons could circle a nucleus without radiating energy only in orbits for which their orbital angular momentum was an integral multiple of Planck's constant h divided by 2π. The discrete spectral lines (see spectrum) emitted by each element were produced by electrons dropping from allowed orbits of higher energy to those of lower energy, the frequency of the photon of light emitted being proportional to the energy difference between the orbits.
Around the same time, experiments on x-ray spectra (see X ray) by H. G. J. Moseley showed that each nucleus was characterized by an atomic number, equal to the number of unit positive charges associated with it. By rearranging the periodic table according to atomic number rather than atomic weight, a more systematic arrangement was obtained. The development of quantum mechanics during the 1920s resulted in a satisfactory explanation for all phenomena related to the role of electrons in atoms and all aspects of their associated spectra. With the discovery of the neutron in 1932 the modern picture of the atom was complete.
With many of the problems of individual atomic structure and behavior now solved, attention has turned to both smaller and larger scales. On a smaller scale the atomic nucleus is being studied in order to determine the details of its structure and to develop sources of energy from nuclear fission and fusion (see nuclear energy), for the atom is not at all indivisible, as the ancient philosophers thought, but can undergo a number of possible changes. On a larger scale new discoveries about the behavior of large groups of atoms have been made (see solid-state physics). The question of the basic nature of matter has been carried beyond the atom and now centers on the nature of and relations between the hundreds of elementary particles that have been discovered in addition to the proton, neutron, and electron. Some of these particles have been used to make new types of exotic "atoms" such as positronium (see antiparticle) and muonium (see muon).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.