What are atoms?

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    Code Monkey Davros's Avatar
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    What are atoms?

    Here is a question I was asked at a job interview not too long ago.

    'Explain what atoms are in simple terms'

    Despite a degree in physics, I made a dog's dinner of this & gave some rubbish about really really small things.

    I was thinking about it recently and looked up a definition & found:

    atom: the smallest particle of matter which can partake in chemical reactions.

    Sounds straight forward. But then I thought, what is a chemical reaction? Isn't it just an interaction between atoms (and collections of atoms). But that's recursive isn't it?

    Any suggestions for answers?

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    How about considering that atoms are "unbound", i.e. no sharing of electrons with other nuclei. No sharing at all, for that matter.

    (Sorry, but a couple of things have been discovered since I studied chemistry back in the Stone Age. )

    -Skipper
    "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." Abraham Maslow

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    I had to think about this a bit too hard, being a chemistry undergrad I should know a proper defination. An atom I suppose can be defined of as a collection of protons and neutrons ( doesn't have to have neutrons, H ), orbited by a number of electrons equal to the number of protons.

    A chemical reaction doesn't have to involve more than one atom. Lots of things happen to just single atoms ( unimolecular reactions ).
    Last edited by crag2804; 10-19-2002 at 02:53 PM.
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    >How about considering that atoms are "unbound",

    Oh. OK then I'll have a go...

    'The smallest particle of matter, which is made up of even smaller particles'. (No that's rubbish.)

    Erm...

    'The smallest piece of stuff which you can cut with a really sharp knife'. (No that's not good either.)

    'The smallest pieces of solid stuff possible.' (Oh dear.)

    'The smallest things you can see with a really good microscope'. (Getting worse).

    Of course, I could just go & look it up in a proper physics dictionary. But that would be too easy.

    So how about...

    'Atoms are systems which represent an arbitrary layer in a scale from the infinitesimal to the infinite.'
    Last edited by Davros; 10-19-2002 at 02:54 PM.

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    Things were so much easier before those damm quarks came along. It would have been:
    "The smallest division of matter"
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    >Things were so much easier before those damm quarks came along

    Not really. Things like electrons, protons, neutrons were known about for along time before quarks.
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    Doh!
    [note to self]
    think before typing
    [/note to self]

    Good job my lecturers arn't reading.

    On thinking though I don't think I did too bad
    a collection of protons and neutrons ( doesn't have to have neutrons, H ), orbited by a number of electrons equal to the number of protons.
    Last edited by crag2804; 10-19-2002 at 03:08 PM.
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    An atom doesn't have to have an equal number of electrons. It can have fewer, in which case it's a positively charged ion, but still an atom.
    How about a self contained system consisting of at at least one proton, optionally bound with neutrons and optionally orbited by electrons, that makes up the smallest division of a distinct chemical element?
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    Told you...

    Quarks weren't invented when I went to school. Heck, the fuse was still burning on the "Big Bang".

    -Skipper
    "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." Abraham Maslow

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    Rolls up sleeve and points to arm..."This is an atom, can't you see it?"
    Last edited by Cshot; 10-19-2002 at 06:18 PM.
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    Thats the answer I like
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    Salvelinus,

    But...an ion - can be - an atom that has gained, or lost, an electron constituting, I believe, a chemical reaction.

    I'll defer...(since you live in the right state. )

    (Love to hang around, but I'm going bowling with my wife and gonna suck some beers. (Have a pint...or six...for our non-American friends.) I'm a whole lot better at one than I am at the other. Your guess. )

    -Skipper
    "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." Abraham Maslow

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    atom= An atom is a particle of matter that uniquely defines a chemical element. An atom consists of a central nucleus that is usually surrounded by one or more electrons. Each electron is negatively charged. The nucleus is positively charged, and contains one or more relatively heavy particles known as protons and neutrons.

    chemical reaction= a collisions between two particles at the correct angle and at the correct momentum resulting in the fulfilment of the activation energy. This is then followed by an chemical bond.

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    >chemical reaction= a collisions between two particles

    That is a very classical understanding!
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    How about "the smallest division of any given element"? That's what I'd say.

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