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Subatomic Particles
Written by Tim Sheppard MBBS BSc. Last updated 11/11/10

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What is a subatomic particle?

An atom isn't the smallest thing we know about. To be honest, the subatomic particles on this page aren't either, but they're useful things to know about because they're involved in all reactions.

Put as simply as possible, subatomic particles are particles (objects, entities - 'things'!) which are smaller than an atom, and in actual fact are things which make up an atom. An atom is made up of subatomic particles.


What is a proton?

A proton is the positively ( 1) charged part of a nucleus. It is referred to as a subatomic particle because it is smaller than an atom (obviously, since it is part of an atom!) and is found in the nucleus with neutrons. The number of protons in an atom determines which element the atom is, giving rise to a proton number or atomic number; for instance, the proton/atomic number for carbon is 6. A proton weighs somewhere in the region of 1836 times as much as an electron, but pretty much the same as a neutron.


What is an electron?

An electron is the negatively (-1) charged part of an atom that surrounds the nucleus in a 'cloud'. Due to this freedom from the nucleus, electrons determine the chemical properties of a chemical, as they can move far more easily - it is the movement of electrons that determines electrical current. An electron is referred to as a subatomic particle because it is smaller than an atom (obviously, since it is part of an atom!) and orbits the nucleus at an incredibly high rate - the electron in a hydrogen atom orbits its nucleus around 1016 times per second, or 600 million billion times every minute! An electron weighs somewhere in the region of 1/1839 times that of a neutron and 1/1836 times that of a proton.


What is a neutron?

A neutron is part of a nucleus with no charge. It is referred to as a subatomic particle because it is smaller than an atom (obviously, since it is part of an atom!) and is found in the nucleus with protons. They are present in all nuclei, except for the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, which contains only one proton. A neutron weighs somewhere in the region of 1839 times as much as an electron, but pretty much the same as a proton.


Further Reading