Discovery of Atomic Nucleus

Discovery of Atomic Nucleus

A figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom with the electron cloud in shades of gray. Protons and neutrons are most likely found in exactly the same space, at the central point. Source wikipedia.org License CC BY-SA 3.0

In physics, the atomic nucleus is the central part of an atom. In comparison to an atom, it is much more smaller and contains most of the mass of the atom. The atomic nucleus also contains all of its positive electric charge (in protons), while all of its negative charge is distributed in the electron cloud.

The atomic nucleus was discovered by Ernest Rutherford, who proposed a new model of the atom based on Geiger-Marsden experiments. These experiments were performed between 1908 and 1913 by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under the direction of Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford’s idea was to direct energetic alpha particles at a thin metal foil and measure how an alpha particle beam is scattered when it strikes a thin metal foil. A narrow collimated beam of alpha particles was aimed at a gold foil of approximately 1 μm thickness (about 10,000 atoms thick).  Alpha particles are energetic nuclei of helium (usually about 6 MeV). Alpha particles, which are about 7300 times more massive than electrons, have a positive charge of +2e. Because of their relatively much greater mass, alpha particles are not significantly deflected from their paths by the electrons in the metal’s atoms.

According to Thomson’s model, if an alpha particle were to collide with an plum-pudding atom, it would just fly straight through, its path being deflected by at most a fraction of a degree. But in the experiment Geiger and Marsden saw that most of the particles are scattered through rather small angles, but, and this was the big surprise, a very small fraction of them are scattered through very large angles, approaching 180° (i.e., they were recoiled backwards).

In Rutherford’s words:

“It is almost as incredible as if you had fired a fifteen inch shell at a sheet of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”

rutherford model - gold foil experimentsRutherford assumed that, to deflect the alpha particle backward, there must be a very large force. This force could be provided only result from a collision with a massive target or from an interaction with an electric or magnetic field of great strength. In previous experiments, it was shown the deflections had to be electrical or perhaps possibly magnetic in origin.

These experiments were a landmark series of experiments by which scientists discovered that every atom contains a nucleus (whose diameter is of the order 10-14m) where all of its positive charge and most of its mass are concentrated in a small region called an atomic nucleus. In Rutherford’s atom, the diameter of its sphere (about 10-10 m) of influence is determined by its electrons. In other words, the nucleus occupies only about 10-12 of the total volume of the atom or less (the nuclear atom is largely empty space), but it contains all the positive charge and at least 99.95% of the total mass of the atom.

Based on these results, Ernest Rutherford proposed a new model of the atom. He postulated that the positive charge in an atom is concentrated in a small region (in comparison to the rest of the atom) called a nucleus at the center of the atom with electrons existing in orbits around it. Furthermore, the nucleus is responsible for most of the mass of the atom.

References:
Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
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Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

See above:

Atomic Theory