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The Bohr model: The famous but flawed depiction of an atom

A model of an atom according to Niels Bohr.
A model of an atom according to Niels Bohr. (Image credit: Pixabay)

The Bohr model, introduced by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1913, was a key step on the journey to understand atoms.

Ancient Greek thinkers already believed that matter was composed of tiny basic particles that couldn't be divided further. It took more than 2,000 years for science to advance enough to prove this theory right. The journey to understanding atoms and their inner workings was long and complicated. 

It was British chemist John Dalton who in the early 19th century revived the ideas of ancient Greeks that matter was composed of tiny indivisible particles called atoms. Dalton believed that every chemical element consisted of atoms of distinct properties that could be combined into various compounds, according to Britannica.  

Dalton's theories were correct in many aspects, apart from that basic premise that atoms were the smallest component of matter that couldn't be broken down into anything smaller. About a hundred years after Dalton, physicists started discovering that the atom was, in fact, really quite complex inside. 

Related: There's a giant mystery hiding inside every atom in the universe

The Bohr model: Journey to find structure of atoms

British physicist Joseph John Thomson made the first major breakthrough in the understanding of atoms in 1897 when he discovered that atoms contained tiny negatively charged particles that he called electrons. Thomson thought that electrons floated in a positively charged "soup" inside the atomic sphere, according to Khan Academy.

14 years later, New Zealand-born Ernest Rutherford, Thomson's former student, challenged this depiction of the atom when he found in experiments that the atom must have a small positively charged nucleus sitting at its center. 

Based on this finding, Rutherford then developed a new atom model, the Rutherford model. According to this model, the atom no longer consisted of just electrons floating in a soup but had a tiny central nucleus, which contained most of the atom's mass. Around this nucleus, the electrons revolved similarly to planets orbiting the sun in our solar system, according to Britannica.

Some questions, however, remained unanswered. For example, how was it possible that the electrons didn't collapse onto the nucleus, since their opposite charge would mean they should be attracted to it? Several physicists tried to answer this question including Rutherford's student Niels Bohr.

Niels Bohr and quantum theory

Bohr was the first physicist to look to the then-emerging  quantum theory to try to explain the behavior of the particles inside the simplest of all atoms; the atom of hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms consist of a heavy nucleus with one positively-charged proton around which a single, much smaller and lighter, negatively charged electron orbits. The whole system looks a little bit like the sun with only one planet orbiting it. 

Bohr tried to explain the connection between the distance of the electron from the nucleus, the electron's energy and the light absorbed by the hydrogen atom, using one great novelty of physics of that era: the Planck constant. 

The Planck constant was a result of the investigation of German physicist Max Planck into the properties of electromagnetic radiation of a hypothetical perfect object called the black body. 

Strangely, Planck discovered that this radiation, including light, is emitted not in a continuum but rather in discrete packets of energy that can only be multiples of a certain fixed value, according to Physics World.That fixed value became the Planck constant. Max Planck called these packets of energy quanta, providing a name to the completely new type of physics that was set to turn the scientists' understanding of our world upside down.

The Bohr model and the hydrogen atom

What role does the Planck constant play in the hydrogen atom? Despite the nice comparison, the hydrogen atom is not exactly like the solar system. The electron doesn't orbit its sun —the nucleus — at a fixed distance, but can skip between different orbits based on how much energy it carries, Bohr postulated. It may orbit at the distance of Mercury, then jump to Earth, then to Mars

The electron doesn't slide between the orbits gradually, but makes discrete jumps when it reaches the correct energy level, quite in line with Planck's theory, physicist Ali Hayek explains on his YouTube channel.

Bohr believed that there was a fixed number of orbits that the electron could travel in. When the electron absorbs energy, it jumps to a higher orbital shell. When it loses energy by radiating it out, it drops to a lower orbit. If the electron reaches the highest orbital shell and continues absorbing energy, it will fly out of the atom altogether.

The ratio between the energy of the electron and the frequency of the radiation it emits is equal to the Planck constant. The energy of the light emitted or absorbed is exactly equal to the difference between the energies of the orbits and is inversely proportional to the wavelength of the light absorbed by the electron, according to Ali Hayek.

Using his model, Bohr was able to calculate the spectral lines — the lines in the continuous spectrum of light — that the hydrogen atoms would absorb. 

The shortcomings of the Bohr model

The Bohr model seemed to work pretty well for atoms with only one electron. But apart from hydrogen, all other atoms in the periodic table have more, some many more, electrons orbiting their nuclei. For example, the oxygen atom has eight electrons, the atom of iron has 26 electrons.

Once Bohr tried to use his model to predict the spectral lines of more complex atoms, the results became progressively skewed.

There are two reasons why Bohr's model doesn't work for atoms with more than one electron, according to the Chemistry Channel. First, the interaction of multiple atoms makes their energy structure more difficult to predict. 

Bohr's model also didn't take into account some of the key quantum physics principles, most importantly the odd and mind-boggling fact that particles are also waves, according to the educational website Khan Academy.

As a result of quantum mechanics, the motion of the electrons around the nucleus cannot be exactly predicted. It is impossible to pinpoint the velocity and position of an electron at any point in time. The shells in which these electrons orbit are therefore not simple lines but rather diffuse, less defined clouds. 

Only a few years after the model's publication, physicists started improving Bohr's work based on the newly discovered principles of particle behavior. Eventually, the much more complicated quantum mechanical model emerged, superseding the Bohr model. But because things get far  less neat when all the quantum principles are in place, the Bohr model is probably still the first thing most physics students discover in their quest to understand what governs matter in the microworld. 

Additional resources:

Read more about the Bohr atom model on the website of the National Science Teaching Association or watch this video.

Bibliography

Heilbron, J.L., Rutherford–Bohr atom, American Journal of Physics 49, 1981 https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1119/1.12521

Olszewski, Stanisław, The Bohr Model of the Hydrogen Atom Revisited, Reviews in Theoretical Science, Volume 4, Number 4, December 2016 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/asp/rits/2016/00000004/00000004/art00003

Kraghm Helge, Niels Bohr between physics and chemistry, Physics Today, 2013 http://materias.df.uba.ar/f4Aa2013c2/files/2012/08/bohr2.pdf

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Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.