Electrons and atomic collapse

  • Thread starter Allen_Wolf
  • Start date
I have a simple doubt to keep things clear.
Why doesn't electrons fall into the nucleus of an atom?
Is it because of the high velocity of electrons?
If so, at what velocity will the electron be slow enough to collapse into the nucleus?


Science Advisor
Homework Helper
Hello Allen,

You can just google your question to get a link that discusses it.


Why doesn't Earth fall into the Sun?

(And no, it is not directly applicable here, but I just wonder where the question comes from).


Science Advisor
Homework Helper
I think Allen is asking a sensible question and deserves an understandable answer. Earth has angular momentum that keeps it orbiting around the sun. Electrons in the lowest energy levels don't have that and still don't annihilate the nucleus. Imagining them as charges orbiting a nucleus poses problems that kept brilliant physicists busy for quite a while.


Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
From: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/electron-proton-attraction.345518/#post-2393864
1) How does the Earth revolve around the sun?
Here, you have to remember that the Earth is moving at great speeds. It is this movement that keeps the Earth from falling into the sun. Now recall Newton's first law of motion: inertia, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Because of inertia, the Earth would like to move in a straight line. However, due to the gravitational force between the Earth and the sun, the Earth is constantly "falling" toward the sun. This gravitational force curves the Earth's preferred straight line of motion into a circle. You can think of this as the sideways motion of the Earth keeping it from ever reaching the sun (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbit#Understanding_orbits for a better explanation).

Early models of the atom were based on this "planetary orbit" model. Electrons travel very fast and their fast speeds allow them to orbit the nucleus like planets orbit the sun.

2) Why is this model is incorrect?
Now, if you have studied electricity and magnetism, you should see a problem with this planetary model. The electron is traveling in a circle which means that it is constantly accelerating (note: although it is not changing speed, it is changing velocity because velocity accounts for the direction of the electron as well as its speed), and the electron has a charge. From the laws of electricity and magnetism, we know that accelerating charged particles should radiate energy (in the form of electromagnetic radiation). Because energy is conserved, this radiated energy would decrease the speed of the electron (lowering its kinetic energy), causing it to slowly spiral into the nucleus. So, we're back where we started, classical physics predicts that an electron will fall into the nucleus!

3) WTF?! What's really going on?
The real explanation for why an electron does not fall into the nucleus comes from a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Put simply, it states that you cannot know the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously. More rigorously stated, the product of the uncertainty of the position of a particle (Δx) and the uncertainty of its momentum (Δp) must be greater than a specified value:
$$\Delta x \Delta p \geq \frac{\hbar}{2}$$
Now, as the electron approaches the nucleus, it's uncertainty in position decreases (if the electron is 10nm away from the nucleus, it could be anywhere within a spherical shell of radius 10nm, but if the electron is only 0.1nm away from the nucleus, that area is greatly reduced). According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, if you decrease the uncertainty of the electrons position, the uncertainty in its momentum must increase. This increased momentum uncertainty means that the electron will be moving away from the nucleus faster, on average.

Put another way, if we do know that at one instant, that the electron is right on top of the nucleus, we lose all information about where the electron will be at the next instant. It could stay at the nucleus, it could be slightly to the left or to the right, or it could very likely be very far away from the nucleus. Therefore, because of the the uncertainty principle it is impossible for the electron to fall into the nucleus and stay in the nucleus.


I think Allen is asking a sensible question and deserves an understandable answer. Earth has angular momentum that keeps it orbiting around the sun. Electrons in the lowest energy levels don't have that and still don't annihilate the nucleus.
No doubt about the fact question deserves an answer. However, the way you have expressed the situation requires mixing two levels of understanding - one rather basic (Earth orbiting the Sun has angular momentum) and one rather sophisticated (electrons in the lowest energy level don't have angular momentum). I find it quite unlikely that the OP asks the question knowing these peculiarities (I will be happy to accept the fact I am wrong here, I am basing my opinion on the experience). My bet is we will get a better chance of answering knowing where the problem comes from, as the planetary model - with all its shortcomings - will do in some cases.

Want to reply to this thread?

"Electrons and atomic collapse" You must log in or register to reply here.

Related Threads for: Electrons and atomic collapse

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving

Hot Threads