Atomic Number and Atomic Mass

     The number of protons in an atom is called its atomic number. This number is very important because it is unique for atoms of a given element. All atoms of an element have the same number of protons, and every element has a different number of protons in its atoms. For example, all helium atoms have two protons, and no other elements have atoms with two protons. In the case of helium, the atomic number is 2. The atomic number of an element is usually written in front of and slightly below the element’s symbol, like in the Figure below for helium.

Atomic and mass number of helium

     Atoms are neutral in electrical charge because they have the same number of negative electrons as positive protons. Therefore, the atomic number of an atom also tells you how many electrons the atom has. This, in turn, determines many of the atom’s properties.

      Rutherford showed that the vast majority of the mass of an atom is concentrated in its nucleus, which is composed of protons and neutrons. The mass number is defined as the total number of protons and neutrons in an atom. 

     Consider the element helium. Its atomic number is 2, so it has two protons in its nucleus. Its nucleus also contains two neutrons. Since 2 + 2 = 4, we know that the mass number of the helium atom is 4. Finally, the helium atom also contains two electrons since the number of electrons must equal the number of protons. This example may lead you to believe that atoms have the same number of protons and neutrons, but further examination of the Table above will show that this is not the case. Lithium, for example has three protons and four neutrons, leaving it with a mass number of 7.

Knowing the mass number and the atomic number of an atom allows you to determine the number of neutrons present in that atom by subtraction.

Number of neutrons = mass number - atomic number


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