Shells A-poppin’

We step into Eddie’s.  Vinnie spots Jeremy behind the gelato stand.  “Hey, kid, you studying something Science-y?”

“Yessir, my geology text.”

“Lemme see it a sec, OK?”

“Sure.  Want a gelato?”

“Yeah, gimme a pistachio, double-dip.  I’ll hold your book while you’re doing that.  Ah-hah, Sy, lookie here, page 37 — new textbook but this atom diagram coulda come right out of that 1912 Bohr paper you don’t like.  See, eight dots in a ring around the nucleus.  Can’t be wrong or it wouldn’t have survived this long, right?”

<sigh>  “What it is isn’t what it was.  Bohr proposed his model as a way to explain atomic spectra.  We’ve got a much better model now — but the two agree on three points.  Atoms organize their electronic charge in concentric shells, innermost shells deepest in the nuclear energy well.  Second, each shell has a limited capacity.  Third, when charge moves from one shell to another, light energy is absorbed or emitted to match the energy difference between shells.  Beyond those, not much.  Here, this diagram hints at the differences.”Better Bohr

“The scrambled-looking half is the new picture?”

“Pure chaos, where the only thing you can be sure of is the averages.  These days the Bohr model survives as just an accounting device to keep track of how much charge is in each shell.  That diagram — what kind of atom is it describing?”

“I dunno, two electrons inside, eight outside, ten total.”

“Could be neon, or a fluoride, oxide, sodium or magnesium ion.  From a quantum perspective they all look the same.”

“Here’s your gelato, sir.”

“Thanks, kid, here’s your book back.  But those are different elements, Sy.”

“The important thing, Vinnie, is they all have an outer shell with eight units of charge.  That’s the most stable configuration.”

“What’s so special about eight, Mr Moire?  If it’s pure chaos shouldn’t any number be OK?”

“Like I said, Jeremy, it’s the averages that count.  Actually, this is one of my favorite examples of what Wigner called ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.’  Back in 1782, a century and a quarter before anyone took atoms seriously, Laplace did some interesting math.  Have you ever waited for a pot of water to boil and spent the time tapping the pot to see the ripples?”

“Who hasn’t?  Doesn’t boil any faster, though.”

“True.  Looking at those waves, you saw patterns you don’t see with flat reflectors, right?”

“Oh, yeah — some like dumbbells, a lot of circles.”

“Mm-hm.  In a completely random situation all possible patterns could appear, but the pot’s circular boundary suppresses everything except wave patterns that match its symmetry.  You don’t see hexagons, for instance.”

“That’s right, I didn’t.”

“So there’s Laplace in the 1790s, thinking about Newton’s Law of Gravity, and he realizes that even in the boundaryless Solar System there’s still a boundary condition — any well-behaved standing wave has to have the same value at the central point no matter what direction you come from.  He worked out all the possible stable patterns that could exist in a central field like that.  Some of them look like what you saw in the water.  We now classify them by symmetry and node count.”

“Node?”Disk orbitals

“A region where the pattern hits zero, Vinnie.  Density waves range from zero to some positive value; other kinds range from positive to negative values.  A spherical wave could peak at the center and then go to zero infinitely far away.  One node.  Or it could be zero at the center, peak in a spherical shell some distance out and then fade away.  That’d be two nodes.  Or it could be zero at the center, zero far away, and have two peaks at different distances with a spherical third node in between.  Here’s another two-node pattern — that dumbbell shape with nodes at the center and infinity.  You can add radial nodes partway out.”

“I’m getting the picture.”

“Sure.  You might think Laplace’s patterns are just pretty pictures, but electron charge in atoms and ions just happens to collect in exactly those patterns.  Combine Laplace’s one-node and two-node patterns, you get the two lowest-energy stable shells.  They hold exactly ten charge units.  The energies are right, too.  Effective?”


~~ Rich Olcott


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