The physicist J. J. Thomson, through his work on cathode rays in 1897, discovered the electron, and concluded that they were a component of every atom. Thus he overturned the belief that atoms are the indivisible, ultimate particles of matter. Thomson postulated that the low mass, negatively charged electrons were distributed throughout the atom, possibly rotating in rings, with their charge balanced by the presence of a uniform sea of positive charge. This later became known as the plum pudding model.
In 1909, Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of physicist Ernest Rutherford, bombarded a sheet of gold foil with alpha rays—by then known to be positively charged helium atoms—and discovered that a small percentage of these particles were deflected through much larger angles than was predicted using Thomson's proposal. Rutherford interpreted the gold foil experiment as suggesting that the positive charge of a heavy gold atom and most of its mass was concentrated in a nucleus at the center of the atom—the Rutherford model.
While experimenting with the products of radioactive decay, in 1913 radiochemist Frederick Soddy discovered that there appeared to be more than one type of atom at each position on the periodic table. The term isotope was coined by Margaret Todd as a suitable name for different atoms that belong to the same element. J.J. Thomson created a technique for separating atom types through his work on ionized gases, which subsequently led to the discovery of stable isotopes.
A Bohr model of the hydrogen atom, showing an electron jumping between fixed orbits and emitting a photon of energy with a specific frequency.Meanwhile, in 1913, physicist Niels Bohr suggested that the electrons were confined into clearly defined, quantized orbits, and could jump between these, but could not freely spiral inward or outward in intermediate states. An electron must absorb or emit specific amounts of energy to transition between these fixed orbits. When the light from a heated material was passed through a prism, it produced a multi-colored spectrum. The appearance of fixed lines in this spectrum was successfully explained by these orbital transitions.
Later in the same year Henry Moseley provided additional experimental evidence in favor of Niels Bohr's theory. These results refined Ernest Rutherford's and Antonius Van den Broek's model, which proposed that the atom contains in its nucleus a number of positive nuclear charges that is equal to its (atomic) number in the periodic table. Until these experiments, atomic number was not known to be a physical and experimental quantity. That it is equal to the atomic nuclear charge remains the accepted atomic model today.
Chemical bonds between atoms were now explained, by Gilbert Newton Lewis in 1916, as the interactions between their constituent electrons. As the chemical properties of the elements were known to largely repeat themselves according to the periodic law, in 1919 the American chemist Irving Langmuir suggested that this could be explained if the electrons in an atom were connected or clustered in some manner. Groups of electrons were thought to occupy a set of electron shells about the nucleus.
The Stern–Gerlach experiment of 1922 provided further evidence of the quantum nature of the atom. When a beam of silver atoms was passed through a specially shaped magnetic field, the beam was split based on the direction of an atom's angular momentum, or spin. As this direction is random, the beam could be expected to spread into a line. Instead, the beam was split into two parts, depending on whether the atomic spin was oriented up or down.
In 1924, Louis de Broglie proposed that all particles behave to an extent like waves. In 1926, Erwin Schrödinger used this idea to develop a mathematical model of the atom that described the electrons as three-dimensional waveforms rather than point particles. A consequence of using waveforms to describe particles is that it is mathematically impossible to obtain precise values for both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time; this became known as the uncertainty principle, formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1926. In this concept, for a given accuracy in measuring a position one could only obtain a range of probable values for momentum, and vice versa. This model was able to explain observations of atomic behavior that previous models could not, such as certain structural and spectral patterns of atoms larger than hydrogen. Thus, the planetary model of the atom was discarded in favor of one that described atomic orbital zones around the nucleus where a given electron is most likely to be observed.
The development of the mass spectrometer allowed the exact mass of atoms to be measured. The device uses a magnet to bend the trajectory of a beam of ions, and the amount of deflection is determined by the ratio of an atom's mass to its charge. The chemist Francis William Aston used this instrument to show that isotopes had different masses. The atomic mass of these isotopes varied by integer amounts, called the whole number rule. The explanation for these different isotopes awaited the discovery of the neutron, a neutral-charged particle with a mass similar to the proton, by the physicist James Chadwick in 1932. Isotopes were then explained as elements with the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons within the nucleus.
In 1938, the German chemist Otto Hahn, a student of Rutherford, directed neutrons onto uranium atoms expecting to get transuranium elements. Instead, his chemical experiments showed barium as a product. A year later, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch verified that Hahn's result were the first experimental nuclear fission. In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel prize in chemistry. Despite Hahn's efforts, the contributions of Meitner and Frisch were not recognized.
In the 1950s, the development of improved particle accelerators and particle detectors allowed scientists to study the impacts of atoms moving at high energies. Neutrons and protons were found to be hadrons, or composites of smaller particles called quarks. Standard models of nuclear physics were developed that successfully explained the properties of the nucleus in terms of these sub-atomic particles and the forces that govern their interactions.