Atoms make up all of the known matter in the world. The word atom is derived from the word greek word atomos, which means uncuttable. That is a terribly ironic origin of the word because the cutting or splitting of atoms is so iconic in world history.
The word Atom comes from the greek word atomos, which means uncuttable. To me, this is terribly ironic because atoms have been at the root of several moments in world history. Atoms do in fact make up everything, which is why it is important to understand them.
Understanding atoms is important for understanding moments in world history, the history of nuclear weapons, and decisions regarding nuclear power. Additionally, a deeper understanding would increase our responsibility to make important policy decisions.
Overview of the Atom
The first thought of the atoms stems from the greek philosophy that everything is made of some unseen object. The philosophy goes on to say that you can take anything and cut it over and over until eventually you get an object that you can no longer cut. That thing was then called the atom.
Throughout the 1800s more progress was made on what an atom is. This was done through strides in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Many people contributed to these findings including John Dalton, Robert Brown, JJ Thompson, and Ernest Rutherford. Surface understanding usually starts with Thompson and Rutherford.
JJ Thompson first described an atom using the Plum Pudding Model. This model describes a roundish shaped object that has a universal positive charge distributed throughout the whole object. Within that diffusely positive object, there are negatively charged pinpoint objects throughout it. The whole object however had a net neutral charge.
Between 1908 and 1913, Ernest Rutherford was working on a famous experiment called the Gold Foil Experiment. Essentially, the experiment found that there is no way that the positive charge could be dispersed as described by Thompson. As a result, the Plum Pudding Model was dissolved.
In 1913, Neil Bohr developed the model that most people think of when they think of atoms. The Bohr model described electrons that orbit around a central nucleus. The electrons can have different positions in orbit, analogous to the distance of planets from the sun. In reality, the positions in which the electrons exist is defined by their associated energy.
What We Know Now
Generally, an atom has a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons. Protons have positive charges while neutrons are neutral. Surrounding the nucleus are electrons that can exist in any location at any time.
Famous Scientists and Their Contributions
Louis de Broglie
In 1924, published research that particles such as electrons can behave like waves and particles alike. He won a Nobel prize in Physics in 1929.
In 1926, contributed to the understanding of electron spin and supported that electrons are not objects but rather 3D waves. Won a Nobel prize in Physics in 1933.
Francis William Aston
Contributed to the understanding of Isotopes. Isotopes are forms or patterns of the same atom. Isotopes vary in proton and neutron quantities. Won a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1922.
In 1932, James Chadwick proved the existence of neutrons, the chargeless particle. Won a Nobel prize in Physics in 1935.
Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission. As a result, he won a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1944.
Importance of Atoms
In 1945, the first nuclear bomb was detonated about 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer is among those considered to be the father of the atomic bomb, due to their contributions to the Manhattan Project. About a month or so after this first detonation, Hiroshima happened.
These bombs worked on the discovery of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms, which in turn releases large amounts of energy. This is the irony of the “uncuttable” thing. The fact that this uncuttable thing actually is cuttable, and the significance of cutting the uncuttable combined to produce a terribly ironic set of historic events.
Later in the 1950s came the development of the hydrogen bomb, which is based on Nuclear Fusion. Nuclear Fusion is the combination of two smaller atoms to create a larger one. The energy created from this reaction is significantly larger than that of nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion produces the energy that we get from the sun. This release of energy is presented in the form of heat.
This is the basis of nuclear power. Nuclear power is created by taking an element, such as uranium, and inducing a fission reaction in a controlled environment under water. Fusion is not yet easily controlled and is more expensive to produce, which is why we don’t use it for nuclear power. The result of the controlled fission reaction is heat which produces steam. That steam then rises to spin a turbine. The spinning turbine then creates electricity, just as it would in a hydroelectric dam.
There are a few fallbacks to nuclear power though. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power is more expensive. Additionally, the waste from nuclear reactors is difficult to manage. Although only 3% of nuclear waste is spent fuel, we do not have means of disposal for that fuel. Everything else that is considered nuclear waste is contaminated equipment.
An atom as we know it today is a particle that has a central nucleus of protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons. To split atoms is called Fission, while combining atoms is called Fusion. Fission produces less energy but is controllable and cheaper while Fusion produces significantly more energy but is not controllable and is more expensive.
Understanding atoms leads to more responsibility for important policy decisions.
In 1968, The Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed internationally. This treaty was designed to prevent nuclear weapon development and the spread of nuclear weapons. In 2017, the UN proposed another nuclear weapons treaty called the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty was designed to prohibit production, development, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. To date, 50 countries have signed this treaty. The US, Great Britain, France and others have opposed the treaty, instead committing solely to the non-proliferation treaty.
In 2019, 20% of generated electricity in the US was from nuclear power. With a further understanding of atoms and some introduction to nuclear energy, we can hopefully make more informed policy decisions in the future.