If one describes atoms using only the Coulomb forces, the electron and the nucleus will attract each other and no stable atoms could exist. Obviously, this is not the case. Niels Bohr was the first (1913) to propose a better model, which consisted of electrons moving around the nucleus in circular orbits. Each orbit corresponds to a certain discrete energy level. This model is based upon the quantization of the angular momentum.
Unfortunately, electrons moving in a circular orbit have an acceleration due to the centripetal force. In classical electromagnetic theory, an accelerated charged particle must emit EM-radiation due to energy conservation. Hence, the electron would lose energy and spiral down towards the nucleus. Again stable atoms could not exist. What is wrong now?
It turns out that the picture of electrons moving in circular orbits around the nucleus isn’t correct either(*). The solution here is the implementation of Quantum Mechanics via the Schrödinger Equation and the concept of the wavefunction. By applying such formalism, the “electron” occupies a volume of space simultaneously, so that it is “smeared” in a particular geometry around the nucleus. While there are no more “orbits”, we do use the term “orbitals” to indicate the shape of such geometry. However, this term should not be confused to mean an orbiting electron similar to our planets in the solar system. By describing the system in terms of the QM wavefunction, it creates stable states for the nucleus+electrons system that matches very well with the experimental observation of standard atomic spectra.
Since there are no more “orbits” in the conventional sense, the problem of electrons radiating due to an accelerated motion is no longer meaningful. It explains why we have stable atoms.
To read more in detail: http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/physics/HydrogenAtom.html
(*) By saying that “an electron orbits the nucleus”, one is already implicitly assuming that one can track the position and momentum of that electron in an atom over a period of time. We have no such ability, and for those who know a bit about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP), one can already tell that such a statement violates this principle.
Contributed by Marlon and edited by ZapperZ
This article was authored by several Physics Forums members with PhDs in physics or mathematics.