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Organic Chemistry

1.1 Atomic Structure: The Nucleus

Organic Chemistry1.1 Atomic Structure: The Nucleus

1.1 • Atomic Structure: The Nucleus

As you might remember from your general chemistry course, an atom consists of a dense, positively charged nucleus surrounded at a relatively large distance by negatively charged electrons (Figure 1.3). The nucleus consists of subatomic particles called neutrons, which are electrically neutral, and protons, which are positively charged. Because an atom is neutral overall, the number of positive protons in the nucleus and the number of negative electrons surrounding the nucleus are the same.

Two schematic views of the structure of an atom featuring a nucleus at the center and encircled by orbiting electrons.
Figure 1.3 A schematic view of an atom. The dense, positively charged nucleus contains most of the atom’s mass and is surrounded by negatively charged electrons. The three-dimensional view on the right shows calculated electron-density surfaces. Electron density increases steadily toward the nucleus and is 40 times greater at the blue solid surface than at the gray mesh surface.

Although extremely small—about 10–14 to 10–15 meter (m) in diameter—the nucleus nevertheless contains essentially all the mass of the atom. Electrons have negligible mass and circulate around the nucleus at a distance of approximately 10–10 m. Thus, the diameter of a typical atom is about 2 × 10–10 m, or 200 picometers (pm), where 1 pm = 10–12 m. To give you an idea of how small this is, a thin pencil line is about 3 million carbon atoms wide. Although most chemists throughout the world use the International System (SI) of units and describe small distances in picometers, many organic chemists and biochemists in the United States still use the unit angstrom (Å) to express atomic distances, where 1 Å = 100 pm = 10–10 m. As you probably did in your general chemistry course, however, we’ll stay with SI units in this book.

A specific atom is described by its atomic number (Z), which gives the number of protons (or electrons) it contains, and its mass number (A), which gives the total number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. All the atoms of a given element have the same atomic number: 1 for hydrogen, 6 for carbon, 15 for phosphorus, and so on; but they can have different mass numbers depending on how many neutrons they contain. Atoms with the same atomic number but different mass numbers are called isotopes. The element carbon, for instance, has three isotopes that occur naturally, with mass numbers of 12, 13, and 14. Carbon-12 has a natural abundance of 98.89%, carbon-13 has a natural abundance of 1.11%, and carbon-14 has only a negligible natural abundance.

The weighted-average of an element’s naturally occurring isotopes is called atomic weight and is given in unified atomic mass units (u) or daltons (Da) where 1 u or 1 Da is defined as one twelfth the mass of one atom of carbon-12. Thus, the atomic weight is 1.008 u for hydrogen, 12.011 u for carbon, 30.974 u for phosphorus, and so on. Atomic weights of all elements are given in the periodic table in Appendix D.

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