Atomic physics

Atomic physics is the field of physics that studies atoms as an isolated system of electrons and an atomic nucleus. It is primarily concerned with the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus and the processes by which these arrangements change. This comprises ions, neutral atoms and, unless otherwise stated, it can be assumed that the term atom includes ions.[1]

The term atomic physics can be associated with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, due to the synonymous use of atomic and nuclear in standard English. Physicists distinguish between atomic physics — which deals with the atom as a system consisting of a nucleus and electrons — and nuclear physics, which considers atomic nuclei alone.

As with many scientific fields, strict delineation can be highly contrived and atomic physics is often considered in the wider context of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Physics research groups are usually so classified.

Isolated atoms

Atomic physics primarily considers atoms in isolation. Atomic models will consist of a single nucleus that may be surrounded by one or more bound electrons. It is not concerned with the formation of molecules (although much of the physics is identical), nor does it examine atoms in a solid state as condensed matter. It is concerned with processes such as ionization and excitation by photons or collisions with atomic particles.

While modelling atoms in isolation may not seem realistic, if one considers atoms in a gas or plasma then the time-scales for atom-atom interactions are huge in comparison to the atomic processes that are generally considered. This means that the individual atoms can be treated as if each were in isolation, as the vast majority of the time they are. By this consideration atomic physics provides the underlying theory in plasma physics and atmospheric physics, even though both deal with very large numbers of atoms.

Electronic configuration

Electrons form notional shells around the nucleus. These are normally in a ground state but can be excited by the absorption of energy from light (photons), magnetic fields, or interaction with a colliding particle (typically ions or other electrons).

Bohr atom model
In the Bohr model, the transition of an electron with n=3 to the shell n=2 is shown, where a photon is emitted. An electron from shell (n=2) must have been removed beforehand by ionization

Electrons that populate a shell are said to be in a bound state. The energy necessary to remove an electron from its shell (taking it to infinity) is called the binding energy. Any quantity of energy absorbed by the electron in excess of this amount is converted to kinetic energy according to the conservation of energy. The atom is said to have undergone the process of ionization.

If the electron absorbs a quantity of energy less than the binding energy, it will be transferred to an excited state. After a certain time, the electron in an excited state will "jump" (undergo a transition) to a lower state. In a neutral atom, the system will emit a photon of the difference in energy, since energy is conserved.

If an inner electron has absorbed more than the binding energy (so that the atom ionizes), then a more outer electron may undergo a transition to fill the inner orbital. In this case, a visible photon or a characteristic x-ray is emitted, or a phenomenon known as the Auger effect may take place, where the released energy is transferred to another bound electron, causing it to go into the continuum. The Auger effect allows one to multiply ionize an atom with a single photon.

There are rather strict selection rules as to the electronic configurations that can be reached by excitation by light — however there are no such rules for excitation by collision processes.

History and developments

One of the earliest steps towards atomic physics was the recognition that matter was composed of atoms. It forms a part of the texts written in 6th century BC to 2nd century BC such as those of Democritus or Vaisheshika Sutra written by Kanad. This theory was later developed in the modern sense of the basic unit of a chemical element by the British chemist and physicist John Dalton in the 18th century. At this stage, it wasn't clear what atoms were although they could be described and classified by their properties (in bulk). The invention of the periodic system of elements by Mendeleev was another great step forward.

The true beginning of atomic physics is marked by the discovery of spectral lines and attempts to describe the phenomenon, most notably by Joseph von Fraunhofer. The study of these lines led to the Bohr atom model and to the birth of quantum mechanics. In seeking to explain atomic spectra an entirely new mathematical model of matter was revealed. As far as atoms and their electron shells were concerned, not only did this yield a better overall description, i.e. the atomic orbital model, but it also provided a new theoretical basis for chemistry (quantum chemistry) and spectroscopy.

Since the Second World War, both theoretical and experimental fields have advanced at a rapid pace. This can be attributed to progress in computing technology, which has allowed larger and more sophisticated models of atomic structure and associated collision processes. Similar technological advances in accelerators, detectors, magnetic field generation and lasers have greatly assisted experimental work.

Significant atomic physicists

Pre quantum mechanics
Post quantum mechanics

See also


  1. ^ Reviews, C. T. I. (2016-10-16). Conceptual Physics: Physics, Physics. Cram101 Textbook Reviews. ISBN 9781467210607.


  • Bransden, BH; Joachain, CJ (2002). Physics of Atoms and Molecules (2nd ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-582-35692-4.
  • Foot, CJ (2004). Atomic Physics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-850696-6.
  • Herzberg, Gerhard (1979) [1945]. Atomic Spectra and Atomic Structure. New York: Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-60115-1.
  • Condon, E.U. & Shortley, G.H. (1935). The Theory of Atomic Spectra. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-09209-8.
  • Cowan, Robert D. (1981). The Theory of Atomic Structure and Spectra. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-03821-9.
  • Lindgren, I. & Morrison, J. (1986). Atomic Many-Body Theory (Second ed.). Springer-Verlag. ISBN 978-0-387-16649-0.

External links

Atomic and molecular astrophysics

Atomic astrophysics is concerned with performing atomic physics calculations that will be useful to astronomers and using atomic data to interpret astronomical observations. Atomic physics plays a key role in astrophysics as astronomers' only information about a particular object comes through the light that it emits, and this light arises through atomic transitions.

Molecular astrophysics, developed into a rigorous field of investigation by theoretical astrochemist Alexander Dalgarno beginning in 1967, concerns the study of emission from molecules in space. There are 110 currently known interstellar molecules. These molecules have large numbers of observable transitions. Lines may also be observed in absorption—for example the highly redshifted lines seen against the gravitationally lensed quasar PKS1830-211. High energy radiation, such as ultraviolet light, can break the molecular bonds which hold atoms in molecules. In general then, molecules are found in cool astrophysical environments. The most massive objects in our galaxy are giant clouds of molecules and dust known as giant molecular clouds. In these clouds, and smaller versions of them, stars and planets are formed. One of the primary fields of study of molecular astrophysics is star and planet formation. Molecules may be found in many environments, however, from stellar atmospheres to those of planetary satellites. Most of these locations are relatively cool, and molecular emission is most easily studied via photons emitted when the molecules make transitions between low rotational energy states. One molecule, composed of the abundant carbon and oxygen atoms, and very stable against dissociation into atoms, is carbon monoxide (CO). The wavelength of the photon emitted when the CO molecule falls from its lowest excited state to its zero energy, or ground, state is 2.6mm, or 115 gigahertz. This frequency is a thousand times higher than typical FM radio frequencies. At these high frequencies, molecules in the Earth's atmosphere can block transmissions from space, and telescopes must be located in dry (water is an important atmospheric blocker), high sites. Radio telescopes must have very accurate surfaces to produce high fidelity images.

On February 21, 2014, NASA announced a greatly upgraded database for tracking polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe. According to scientists, more than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs, possible starting materials for the formation of life. PAHs seem to have been formed shortly after the Big Bang, are widespread throughout the universe, and are associated with new stars and exoplanets.

Atomic units

Atomic units (au or a.u.) form a system of natural units which is especially convenient for atomic physics calculations. There are two different kinds of atomic units, Hartree atomic units and Rydberg atomic units, which differ in the choice of the unit of mass and charge. This article deals with Hartree atomic units, where the numerical values of the following four fundamental physical constants are all unity by definition:

In Hartree units, the speed of light is approximately . Atomic units are often abbreviated "a.u." or "au", not to be confused with the same abbreviation used also for astronomical units, arbitrary units, and absorbance units in different contexts.

Bohr magneton

In atomic physics, the Bohr magneton (symbol μB) is a physical constant and the natural unit for expressing the magnetic moment of an electron caused by either its orbital or spin angular momentum.

The Bohr magneton is defined in SI units by

and in Gaussian CGS units by


e is the elementary charge,
ħ is the reduced Planck constant,
me is the electron rest mass and
c is the speed of light.

The electron magnetic moment, which is the electron's intrinsic spin magnetic moment, is approximately one Bohr magneton.

Bohr radius

The Bohr radius (a0 or rBohr) is a physical constant, approximately equal to the most probable distance between the nucleus and the electron in a hydrogen atom in its ground state. It is named after Niels Bohr, due to its role in the Bohr model of an atom. Its value is 5.2917721067(12)×10−11 m.

Charged particle

In physics, a charged particle is a particle with an electric charge. It may be an ion, such as a molecule or atom with a surplus or deficit of electrons relative to protons. It can also be an electron or a proton, or another elementary particle, which are all believed to have the same charge (except antimatter). Another charged particle may be an atomic nucleus devoid of electrons, such as an alpha particle.

A plasma is a collection of charged particles, atomic nuclei and separated electrons, but can also be a gas containing a significant proportion of charged particles.

Electron affinity

In chemistry and atomic physics, the electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

X + e− → X− + energyIn solid state physics, the electron affinity for a surface is defined somewhat differently (see below).

Electron shell

In chemistry and atomic physics, an electron shell, or a principal energy level, may be thought of as an orbit followed by electrons around an atom's nucleus. The closest shell to the nucleus is called the "1 shell" (also called "K shell"), followed by the "2 shell" (or "L shell"), then the "3 shell" (or "M shell"), and so on farther and farther from the nucleus. The shells correspond with the principal quantum numbers (n = 1, 2, 3, 4 ...) or are labeled alphabetically with letters used in the X-ray notation (K, L, M, …).

Each shell can contain only a fixed number of electrons: The first shell can hold up to two electrons, the second shell can hold up to eight (2 + 6) electrons, the third shell can hold up to 18 (2 + 6 + 10) and so on. The general formula is that the nth shell can in principle hold up to 2(n2) electrons. Since electrons are electrically attracted to the nucleus, an atom's electrons will generally occupy outer shells only if the more inner shells have already been completely filled by other electrons. However, this is not a strict requirement: atoms may have two or even three incomplete outer shells. (See Madelung rule for more details.) For an explanation of why electrons exist in these shells see electron configuration.The electrons in the outermost occupied shell (or shells) determine the chemical properties of the atom; it is called the valence shell.

Each shell consists of one or more subshells, and each subshell consists of one or more atomic orbitals.

Franco-British Nuclear Forum

The first meeting of the Franco–British Nuclear Forum was held in Paris in November 2007, chaired by the Minister for Energy and the French Industry Minister. The working groups are focusing on specific areas for collaboration. A follow-up meeting on the issue in London was planned for March 2008,[1] but did not take place.[2]

Heliotron J

Heliotron J is a fusion research device in Japan, specifically a helical-axis heliotron designed to study plasma confinement in this type of device.

International Nuclear Information System

The International Nuclear Information System (INIS) hosts one of the world's largest collections of published information on the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology.

Large Helical Device

The Large Helical Device (大型ヘリカル装置, Ōgata Herikaru Sōchi) (LHD) is a fusion research device in Toki, Gifu, Japan, belonging to the National Institute for Fusion Science.

It is the second largest superconducting stellarator in the world, after the Wendelstein 7-X.

The LHD employs a heliotron magnetic field originally developed in Japan.

The objective of the project is to conduct fusion plasma confinement research in a steady state in order to elucidate possible solutions to physics and engineering problems in helical plasma reactors. The LHD uses neutral beam injection, ion cyclotron radio frequency (ICRF), and electron cyclotron resonance heating (ECRH) to heat the plasma, much like conventional tokamaks.

Major actinide

Major actinides is a term used in the nuclear power industry that refers to the plutonium and uranium present in used nuclear fuel, as opposed to the minor actinides neptunium, americium, curium, berkelium, and californium.

Making a Real Killing

Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West is a 1999 book by Len Ackland. Ackland draws on information obtained from governmental sources, federal contractors, personal interviews, and newspaper articles to form a multi-layered history about the controversial Rocky Flats nuclear facility. The book also explores the creation and collapse of the nuclear weapons complex in the United States.

Reviews of Making a Real Killing have been published in Environmental History and Pacific Historical Review.Len Ackland is the former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and director for environmental journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Molecular physics

Molecular physics is the study of the physical properties of molecules, the chemical bonds between atoms as well as the molecular dynamics. Its most important experimental techniques are the various types of spectroscopy; scattering is also used. The field is closely related to atomic physics and overlaps greatly with theoretical chemistry, physical chemistry and chemical physics.

In addition to the electronic excitation states which are known from atoms, molecules exhibit rotational and vibrational modes whose energy levels are quantized. The smallest energy differences exist between different rotational states: pure rotational spectra are in the far infrared region (about 30 - 150 µm wavelength) of the electromagnetic spectrum. Vibrational spectra are in the near infrared (about 1 - 5 µm) and spectra resulting from electronic transitions are mostly in the visible and ultraviolet regions. From measuring rotational and vibrational spectra properties of molecules like the distance between the nuclei can be specifically calculated.

One important aspect of molecular physics is that the essential atomic orbital theory in the field of atomic physics expands to the molecular orbital theory.

Proton capture

Proton capture is a nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus and one or more protons collide and merge to form a heavier nucleus.

Since protons have positive electric charge, they can enter a nucleus more hardly than neutrally charged neutrons, which aren't repelled electrostatically.

Proton capture plays an important role in the cosmic nucleosynthesis of proton rich isotopes. In stars it can proceed in two ways: as a rapid (rp-process) or a slow process (p-process).


The Stellarator of Costa Rica 1 (or SCR-1) is a small modular stellarator for the magnetic confinement of plasma located at Cartago, Costa Rica. It is developed by the plasmaTEC group of the Plasma Laboratory for Fusion Energy and Applications at Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica. It began operation as Latin America's first stellerator on 29 June 2016.SCR-1 is of a compact design and has the distinction of having the smallest aspect ratio of any operating stellarator device (>4.4). Its design is influenced by the small Spanish stellarator UST-1.

Timeline of atomic and subatomic physics

A timeline of atomic and subatomic physics.

Tokamak de Fontenay aux Roses

The Tokamak de Fontenay-aux-Roses (TFR) was the first French tokamak, built in a research centre of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Fontenay-aux-Roses, a commune in the southwestern suburbs of Paris, France.In the years 1973 to 1976, it was the highest-performance fusion device in the world.It was followed by Tore Supra at Cadarache.

See also

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