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Essential Elements

6 7 InSIdE thE atom proton, neutron and electron A simple visualisation of an atom is as a solar system opposite top, with a small central nucleus orbited by whirling electrons. The nucleus, a mere hundred billionth of a millimetre across, contains two similar particles, protons and neutrons. Each proton, has a single positive electric charge and a companion negatively charged electron. The proton count gives an elements atomic number, or position in the periodic table see pages 5657. Electrons weigh nearly two thousand times less than protons and neutrons. Repelling other electrons they are attracted to the oppositely charged protons but take no notice of neutrons which have no charge. Balancing all these forces, electrons team up in pairs and whizz about the nucleus in orbitals grouped into orbital sets, three dimensional patterns that get increasingly complex in larger atoms. Orbitals fill in a specific order opposite below. Each element comes in a few varieties, or isotopes, with differing numbers of neutrons to a set number of protons. Isotopes react the same chemically yet can behave quite differently at a nuclear level. Incredibly, atoms are almost entirely empty space. An electron orbiting a nucleus may be visualised as a cat swinging a bumblebee on the end of a halfmile long piece of string.
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