nucleus, in physics: Composition


Atomic nuclei are composed of two types of particles, protons and neutrons, which are collectively known as nucleons. A proton is simply the nucleus of an ordinary hydrogen atom, the lightest atom, and has a unit positive charge. A neutron is an uncharged particle of about the same mass as the proton. The number of protons in a given nucleus is the atomic number of that nucleus and determines which chemical element the nucleus will constitute when surrounded by electrons.

The total number of protons and neutrons together in a nucleus is the atomic mass number of the nucleus. Two nuclei may have the same atomic number but different mass numbers, thus constituting different forms, or isotopes, of the same element. The mass number of a given isotope is the nearest whole number to the atomic weight of that isotope and is approximately equal to the atomic weight (in the case of carbon-12, exactly equal).

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