The Shell You Say

Everyone figures Eddie started his pizza place because he likes to eavesdrop.  No surprise, he wanders over to our table.  “I heard you guys talking about atoms and stuff and how Sy here don’t like Bohr’s model of electrons in atoms even though Bohr’s model and the shell model both account for hydrogen’s spectrum.  Why’s the shell model better?”

Vinnie comes back quick.  “Because it’s not physically impossible, for one thing.”

I’m on it.  “Because the shell model extends smoothly to atoms and ions in an electric or magnetic field.  Better yet, shell methods can be applied to molecules.”

“What do fields have to do with it?”

“It’ll help to know that some of those electron patterns come in sets.  The 2-node shell has three dumbbell shapes, for instance — one each along the x, y and z axes. Think about an atom all alone in space with no fields around.  How does it know which way z goes?””

“It don’t.  Everything’s gotta be in all directions, like spherical.”

Vinnie’s back in.  “I’m seeing an atom in an electric field, say up-to-down, it’s going to pull charge in one direction, say down.  So now the atom don’t look like no ball no more, right?”

orbital in a field

Vertical field on the right

“Right.  Once the atom’s got a special direction, those three dumbbells stop being equivalent.  We say that the field mixes together the spherical pattern (in atoms we’d call it an s-orbital) with that direction’s dumbbell (we’d call it a p-orbital) to make two combination orbitals.  One combination has a lump of charge stretched downwards and the other combination has a bowl of diminished charge stretched upwards.  The stronger the field, the wider the energy split between those two.”

“What about the other two dumbbells?”

“They’re still equivalent, Eddie.  If there’s charge in them it’s spread evenly around the equator like a doughnut.  Energy-wise they’re in between the two s±p combinations.”

IF there’s charge, like maybe there ain’t?”

“Ever suspicious, eh, Vinnie?  You’re right, and that’s a good point.  Orbitals are only a way to describe the chaos inside the atom, like notes are a way to describe music.  There are 3-node orbitals and 47-node orbitals, all the way up, but most of the time they’re not charge-activated just like a piano’s top note hardly ever gets played.”

“How do we know whether an orbital’s activated?”

“We’ve got rules for that, Eddie.  Maximum of two units of charge per orbital, lowest energy first.  Unless some light wave has deactivated a deeper orbital and activated a higher one.”

“You’re being careful again, not saying an electron’s here or an electron’s there.”

“Darn right, Vinnie.  It’s that chaos thing — charge is smeared all over the atom like air molecules jiggle all over the place to carry a sound wave.  Chemists and physicists may talk about ‘the electron in the 2s-orbital’ but that’s shorthand.  They know it’s really not like that.”

“I’m doing arithmetic over here.  So there’s two electrons, OK, call it two units of charge for that 1-node ball orbital, plus two units for the 2-node ball, plus two units each for the three dumbbells, uses up five orbitals.  That’s the same 2+8 stable mix that Bohr came up with.”

“Yeah, Eddie, but that field Sy talked about could be any strength.  Run the energy  equations backwards and the astronomers get a way to check a star’s fields.”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  Transitions involving combination orbitals have slightly different energy jumps than the ones we see in isolated atoms.  Electric and magnetic fields split each line in an element’s spectrum into multiplets.  Measure their splittings and you can work back to the field strengths that caused them.  The shell theory offers more predictions and more scientific insights than Bohr’s model ever dreamed of.”

“You said shell theory can handle molecules, too.  How’s that work?”

“Same as that electric field, but a lot messier.  Every nucleus exerts a field, mostly electric, on the rest of the molecule.  So does all the electron charge, but it’s more diffuse and includes more magnetism.  Molecular orbitals span the whole thing.  Works like atoms but much harder to calculate.”

“Figuring tips is easier,” hints Eddie.

~~ Rich Olcott