atomic weight


atomic weight, mean (weighted average) of the masses of all the naturally occurring isotopes of a chemical element, as contrasted with atomic mass, which is the mass of any individual isotope. Although the first atomic weights were calculated at the beginning of the 19th cent., it was not until the discovery of isotopes by F. Soddy (c.1913) that the atomic mass of many individual isotopes was determined, leading eventually to the adoption of the atomic mass unit as the standard unit of atomic weight. For many elements with two or more stable isotopes, atomic weight is now expressed as a variable interval with a lower and upper bound instead of a single number; in the case of hydrogen, for example, this is typically written as: [1.00784; 1.00811].

Atomic weights were formerly determined directly by chemical means; now a mass spectrograph is usually employed. The atomic mass and relative abundance of the isotopes of an element can be measured very accurately and with relative ease by this method, whereas chemical determination of the atomic weight of an element requires a careful and precise quantitative analysis of as many of its compounds as possible.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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