Maira Paris

This week’s question was asked by: Maira Paris, fifth grade, LaGrange Elementary School.

Teacher: Cherida Brom.

QUESTION: If everything around us is made of atoms, then what are atoms made of?

ANSWER: Atoms are small, but atoms themselves are made up of smaller particles like protons, electrons, and neutrons. Protons, neutrons, and electrons are further made up of some other particles called quarks.

If you want to create a language, you need an alphabet. If you want to build elements or molecules you need atoms. Atoms, the basic building blocks of matter, consist of a central core positive nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons. Everything in the world is made up of atoms, and while there are many different types of atoms in the universe, they are all built the same way; with electrons, protons and neutrons.

Atoms create elements, and elements create molecules. Everything in the world is built by using something else. While atoms make up every object in the world, they are so small by themselves that you can’t see them without the help of a special microscope called an electron microscope. One drop of water contains over a million atoms and molecules.

The scientific term for electrons, protons and neutrons, is subatomic particles. The protons and neutrons of an atom are always in the center or nucleus of the atom, while the electrons are found zinging around the nucleus. It’s called the planetary model, much like the nine planets orbiting the sun (Pluto is back in the fold). This planetary model is not the only one out there, but it’s the simplest and most useful.

If an atom contains an equal number of electrons and protons, then the charge will cancel each other out to create an atom with a neutral charge. An atom has a negative charge if it has more electrons than protons and a positive charge if it has more protons than electrons. If an atom does not have the same number of electrons as there are protons in the nucleus, the atom is said to be an ion.

Going back to that alphabet idea, words on a page are made up of letters, and there are only 26 letters in our English language. But those 26 letters can make thousands of words. In nature, we only have about 120 different atoms. We call these elements. Those 120 different atoms can make thousands and thousands of different molecules.

When atoms of different types of elements join together, they make molecules called compounds. A really simple compound is the water molecule made up of two hydrogen atoms bonded with one oxygen atom. That’s why we call it H2O.

Atoms and molecules are the building blocks that create the necessary states of matter that allow life to function. In fact, atoms and molecules make up everything around us, including our own bodies. It’s amazing to think that a rock, a dandelion, a horse and you and I are made of the same kinds of atoms. Indeed, the same 120 kinds of atoms, or elements, make up the planets, stars and galaxies.

Molecules and compounds are held together by chemical bonds. There are two types: covalent bonds and ionic bonds. Both involve electrons. Electrons are those negative things that orbit atoms in shells. These shells want to be full of electrons. If they are not, they will try to bond with other atoms to get just the right amount of electrons to fill their shells.

Covalent bonds share electrons between atoms. There is a covalent bond between the oxygen and hydrogen in a water molecule (H2O). Each of the covalent bonds contains two electrons, one from a hydrogen atom and one from the oxygen atom. Both atoms share the electron.

Ionic bonds form when one electron from an atom is donated to another atom. One atom gives up an electron in order to form a balance. Regular table salt, NaCl, or sodium chloride, is an example. Sodium gives one electron to chlorine and thus an ionic bond is formed.

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Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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