Physical Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Effective Nuclear Charge

Much of chemistry concerns the interactions of the outermost electrons between different chemical species, whether they are atoms or molecules.  The properties of these outermost electrons depends in large part to the charge that the protons in the nucleus exerts on them.  Generally speaking, an atom with more protons exerts a larger positive charge.  However, with the exception of hydrogen, this positive charge is always less than the full nuclear charge.  This is due to the negative charge of the electrons in the inner shells, which partially offsets the positive charge from the nucleus.  Thus, the net charge that the nucleus exerts on the outermost electrons – the effective nuclear charge – is less than the charge that the nucleus would exert if there were no inner electrons between them.


Checking the Goodness of Fit of the Poisson Distribution in R for Alpha Decay by Americium-241


Today, I will discuss the alpha decay of americium-241 and use R to model the number of emissions from a real data set with the Poisson distribution.  I was especially intrigued in learning about the use of Am-241 in smoke detectors, and I will elaborate on this clever application.  I will then use the Pearson chi-squared test to check the goodness of fit of my model.  The R script for the full analysis is given at the end of the post; there is a particularly useful code for superscripting the mass number of a chemical isotope in the title of a plot.  While there are many examples of superscripts in plot titles and axes that can be found on the web, none showed how to put the superscript before a text.  I hope that this and other tricks in this script are of use to you.

smoke detector


Smoke Detector with Americium-241

Source: Creative Commons via Eric Mason’s Coursework for Physics 241 at Stanford University

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The Gold Foil Experiment and The 250-Million-Ton Pea: The Composition of the Atom

This Atom Is Not To Scale

In a recent post about isotopic abundance, I used a prototypical image of a lithium atom to illustrate the basic structure of an atom.  However, the image was deliberately not drawn to scale to make the protons, neutrons, and electrons visible.  Let’s look at the basic composition of the atom to see why, and we owe this understanding to Ernest Rutherford.  First, let’s give some historical background about what motivated Rutherford to conduct this experiment; we first turn to the Plum Pudding Model by J.J. Thomson.

The Plum Pudding Model

Before 1911, the dominant theory of atomic composition was J.J. Thomson‘s “plum pudding” model.  Thomson hypothesized that an atom consisted of electrons as negatively charged particles (the “plums”) “floating” in a “pudding” of positive charge.

plum pudding model

Plum Pudding Model of the Atom

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Displaying Isotopic Abundance Percentages with Bar Charts and Pie Charts

The Structure of an Atom

An atom consists of a nucleus at the centre and electrons moving around it.  The nucleus contains a mixture of protons and neutrons.  For most purposes in chemistry, the two most important properties about these 3 types of particles are their masses and charges.  In terms of charge, protons are positive, electrons are negative, and neutrons are neutral.  A proton’s mass is roughly the same as a neutron’s mass, but a proton is almost 2,000 times heavier than an electron.

lithium atom

This image shows a lithium atom, which has 3 electrons, 3 protons, and 4 neutrons.  

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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