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Homework Help: Can electrostatic forces explain electron configurations?

  1. May 29, 2008 #1
    I've been studying basic atomic structure-- shells, subshells, orbitals, the four quantum numbers, the periodic table, etc. This is in a chemistry book, but if my question belongs in the physics forum please let me know.

    I've seen diagrams of "atomic structure" that show arrangements of electrons: 1s2, 2p2, 2p6 etc. and I understand how the configurations are derived from the quantum numbers. I am curious if the distribution of electrons can be explained in terms of electrostatic forces. That is, if you made a 3-d computer model of point charges around a larger central charge, would you find stable configurations that correspond to anything like the electron configurations you get from the four quantum numbers? I suppose the spin number doesn't fit, but how about n, l, and m?

    I hope this question makes sense. What I am really wondering is if atoms can be "explained away" in terms of more basic forces (i.e. electrostatic and strong nuclear to hold the nucleus together), or is an atom more than the sum of its parts, that is, is it something you can't presently derive from more basic physics.

  2. jcsd
  3. May 30, 2008 #2
    The electron configuration tells you the quantum numbers, eg in the [tex]1s^2[/tex], the 1 refers to the principle quantum number n, the s to the angular momentum number l [which can take values 0 -> n-1] and the 2 is the number of spin configurations you can have for this value of l, in this case it is +1/2 and -1/2.
    Thus the electronic stucture of the atom is determined by the varies quantum restrictions on the values of variables it can possess. To explain this, you must remember that the electron is not a particle, but is described by a wavefunction. This is abstract, but you can basically think of this as meaning that the electron has no definitite location in space until it is measured to have one, it has simply a probability of being found at a certain position. The electron orbitals are basically formed from these probality distructions, or wavefunctions. Solving the Schrodinger equation in a spherical electrostatic potential of an atom will give solutions of the form of the orbitals. So to answer another question, yes a computer program could be written to do this, as you must specify to the program what you want it to do, ie solve the schrodinger equation, and what form of answer you require, here something called spherical harmonics, it would be the only solution it could give.

    the wikipedia page for electronic structure [id link but i havent got enough posts for that ] gives you some nice pictures of what the orbitals 'look' like, and a nice explanation along the same lines as this, so you can read if i have been unclear. i
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