What does an atom look like? We cannot see inside an atom, even if we achieve the optical power to do so. Why? Because the wavelength of visible light is much bigger than the size of an atom. To understand that, consider yourself standing a little further into the water at a beach. When a wave hits you, it doesn’t get reflected back nor stop, it simply passes through you like you didn’t matter. A visible light wave is like the ocean wave, and you are the atom. How do we see atoms then? Well we simply find a wave small enough, like X-Rays. Although this sounds easy, smaller wavelengths require high energy (E=hμ). When a high energy (extremely small wavelength, the diameter of a proton) hits the atom, it usually displaces the contents of the atom. Read more about this here and here.
Before we jump into anything else, let us straighten things out. Everything you’ve been taught about the atom is just a theory. No one knows what exactly goes on around inside an atom. If we knew what exactly went on inside the atom, we’d already be conquering galaxies and harnessing energy out of black holes. Some of science’s deepest mysteries lie inside the atom, which govern how the universe functions. Let’s take a look.
How is an atom formed?
We don’t really know. But our best guess is this:
The hydrogen atom (which is a proton and an electrons) was formed when the universe came into being after the big bang. When a huge chunk of hydrogen gas came together under its own gravity, it formed Helium via fusion. The first star that was born create more elements inside itself via fusion, and finally when it died, it created all the other elements, again via fusion. To understand how that happens, see this video on black holes:
The Wave-Particle Duality
Here is our chapter on duality to speed things along.
Now that we have established that electrons, like photons, are actually both waves and particles, we can come to what orbitals are. But first, let’s get more insight.
If you’re not saying, “My life is a lie!” by now, let me confirm it to you. Your life is a lie.
Orbitals are nothing but functional estimates of the position of electrons, based on wave theory only. Orbitals do not account for particle nature of electrons. They just tell you where it is that the electron may be found. Orbitals are determined via a different type of mechanics than the one you study in class 11. It’s called quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, just like normal mechanics, builds on laws observed in nature, and uses them to solve for the position, momentum, spin and other particle variables. When you say quantum number 0 for s orbitals, beware you’re not doing chemistry but quantum mechanics. We don’t, at least here, intend to take you to the realm of quantum mechanics, because just like mechanics it requires a strong base and understanding of its fundamentals. But we do intend to ease things out for your imagination and make you want to learn quantum physics in the future.
What we hope to achieve by the following is explain the wave functions of orbitals along with the particle positions of electrons, and explain how the electrons might actually be moving around the nucleus considering all known models.
Step 1: Imagine a picture of the Earth revolving around the Sun, and the Moon revolving around the Earth.
Step 2: The moon’s actual orbit is elliptical around the Earth. But imagine it to be spherical.
Step 3: Imagine the Earth isn’t there. Then the path in which the moon moves around the Sun, would be where an electron in an “S orbital” might be present.
The nuclei are even more complicated, and thus we have talked about them in another chapter.