Atomic Models


Atomic Models

We have learnt Dalton’s atomic theory in previous lesson, which suggested that the atom was indivisible and indestructible. But the discovery of two fundamental particles (electrons and protons) inside the atom, led to the failure of this aspect of Dalton’s atomic theory. It was then considered necessary to know how electrons and protons are arranged within an atom. For explaining this, many scientists proposed various atomic models .

Let us discuss those various models to explain how these particles are arranged within the atom.


Thomsons Model of an Atom

J.J. Thomson was the first one to propose a model for the structure of an atom. Thomson proposed the model of an atom to be similar to that of a Christmas pudding. The electrons, in a sphere of positive charge, were like currants (dry fruits) in a spherical Christmas pudding. We can also think of a watermelon, the positive charge in the atom is spread all over like the red edible part of the watermelon, while the electrons are studded in the positively charged sphere, like the seeds in the watermelon (Fig. 1).





Thomson proposed that:

  • An atom consists of a positively charged sphere and the electrons are embedded in it.
  • The negative and positive charges are equal in magnitude. So, the atom as a whole is electrically neutral.

Although Thomson’s model explained that atoms are electrically neutral, the results of experiments carried out by other scientists could not be explained by this model, as we will see below.


Rutherfords Model of an Atom

Ernest Rutherford was interested in knowing how the electrons are arranged within an atom. Rutherford designed an experiment for this. In this experiment, fast moving alpha (α)-particles were made to fall on a thin gold foil.

  • He selected a gold foil because he wanted as thin a layer as possible. This gold foil was about 1000 atoms thick.
  • α-particles are doubly-charged helium ions. Since they have a mass of 4 u, the fast-moving α-particles have a considerable amount of energy.
  • It was expected that α-particles would be deflected by the sub-atomic particles in the gold atoms. Since the α-particles were  much heavier than the protons, he did not expect to see large deflections.




But, the α-particle scattering experiment gave totally unexpected results (Fig..2). The following observations were made:


  •    Most of the fast moving α-particles passed straight through the gold foil.
  •    Some of the α-particles were deflected by the foil by small angles.
  •    Surprisingly one out of every 12000 particles appeared to rebound.

In the words of Rutherford, “This result was almost as incredible as if you fire a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it comes back and hits you”.

Let us think of an activity in an open field to understand the implications of this experiment. Let a child stand in front of a wall with his eyes closed. Let him throw stones at the wall from a distance. He will hear a sound when each stone strikes the wall. If he repeats this ten times, he will hear the sound ten times. But if a blind-folded child were to throw stones at a barbed-wire fence, most of the stones would not hit the fencing and no sound would be heard. This is because there are lots of gaps in the fence which allow the stone to pass through them

Following a similar reasoning, Rutherford concluded from the α-particle scattering experiment that–


  • Most of the space inside the atom is empty because most of the α-particles passed through the gold foil without getting deflected.
  • Very few particles were deflected from their path, indicating that the positive charge of the atom occupies very little space.
  • A very small fraction of α-particles were deflected by 1800, indicating that all the positive charge and mass of the gold atom were  concentrated in a very small volume within the atom.

From the data he also calculated that the radius of the nucleus is about 105 times less  than the radius of the atom. On the basis of his experiment, Rutherford put forward the nuclear model of an atom, which had the following features:


  •  There is a positively charged centre in an atom called the nucleus. Nearly all the mass of an atom resides in the nucleus.
  •  The electrons revolve around the nucleus in circular paths.
  •  The size of the nucleus is very small as compared to the size of the atom.


What were the drawbacks of Rutherford’s model of the atom?

The revolution of the electron in a circular orbit is not expected to be stable. Any particle in a circular orbit would undergo acceleration. During acceleration, charged particles would radiate energy. Thus, the revolving electron would lose energy and finally fall into the nucleus. If this were so, the atom should be highly unstable and hence matter would not exist in the form that we know. We know that atoms are quite stable.


Bohr's Model of Atom

In order to overcome the objections raised against Rutherford’s model of the atom, Neils Bohr put forward the following postulates about the model of an atom:

  • Only certain special orbits known as discrete orbits of electrons, are allowed inside the atom.
  • While revolving in discrete orbits the electrons do not radiate energy.



These orbits or shells are called energy levels. These orbits or shells are represented by the letters K,L,M,N,… or the numbers. n=1,2,3,4, shown in the Fig.3.



  • Rutherford’s alpha-particle scattering experiment led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus.
  • Rutherford’s model of the atom proposed that a very tiny nucleus is present inside the atom and electrons revolve around this nucleus. The stability of the atom could not be explained by this model.
  • Neils Bohr’s model of the atom was more successful. He proposed that electrons are distributed in different shells with discrete energy around the nucleus. If the atomic shells are complete, then the atom will be stable and less reactive.


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