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it's an additional property that electrons (and other
particles) possess. Here's an
analogy: think about the Earth orbiting the sun--
you just been pounding into my head that electrons
don't orbit like planets?
true, they don't--and yet that picture remains
helpful and illuminating in many contexts. So bear
with me for a moment: think about the Earth. Not only
does it orbit around the sun once a year, it's also
spinning once a day on its own axis...
that's what spin is! Although I suppose you're going
to tell me that electrons don't really spin, any more
than they really orbit.
on quickly. They don't spin--but it's tremendously
useful to think about them as if they did, and for
most practical purposes, you can. In the present
case, think of the two electrons in that
lowest energy level as spinning in opposite
directions. It's often said that one has "spin up"
and the other "spin down."
each level has room for a spin up and a spin
down--that makes sense. But you haven't explained s,
p, and d yet; there must be more complications to
Electron Configurations Continued
look at the elements beyond lithium and see what you
see...the fourth element, beryllium (Be), has a
second electron in the higher energy level, which
means that level now has both a spin up and a spin
down. So the next element should begin a third energy
level--is that right?
yourself. Try clicking on boron (B), the fifth
element--you know, the one Bruce Willis was so
what's going on? The fifth electron has a slightly
higher energy than the other yellow ones, but it's
not directly above them; it's in that column labeled
you have any ideas about what might be happening?
Well...my best guess is that the colored rows, pink
and yellow, represent the main energy levels, and s,
p, and d are like smaller sublevels of them.
Very good. So what do you think is going to happen as
you keep going along that row of the periodic table?
Hmm...carbon (C) has a second electron in the p
column, so now s and p in the yellow row each have a
spin up and a spin down. The next electron must start
a whole new energy level, or maybe it goes into the d
column, if that's the next higher sublevel.
very logical...but now look at nitrogen (N).
the seventh electron went into the p column too! How
can there be three with the same energy?
worse. Go on.
(O), fluorine (F), neon (Ne)--more electrons just
keep getting stuffed into that same state. What
happened to the exclusion principle? This makes no
sense at all!
perfect sense, once you know the rules.
Rules for Electron Configurations
you'd stop being so mysterious and explain these
"rules" you keep referring to.
just about to do that. I have to warn you, though,
that the rules may seem arbitrary to you, and I won't
be giving any satisfactory explanation of the reasons
for them. Partly that's because I want to spare you a
lot of complicated math, and partly it's because this
is just the way nature is. I'll just ask you to have
faith that all this numerology comes out of a
sophisticated mathematical theory, and has been
upheld time after time by experiment.
now I think I'll be satisfied if you can tell me how
to predict those electron arrangements you've been
I can do that. First of all,
you were correct when you guessed that those colored
rows in the chart correspond to the "main energy
levels"; they're often called primary energy
levels, incidentally. Usually, a higher row means a
higher energy, and energy gaps between rows tend to
be quite large, in comparison with the gap between,
say, s and p.
ever going to explain what s and p mean?
I'll do that right now. As you
surmised, the s, p, and d columns represent smaller
"sublevels" of the primary rows...
not just call them A, B, and C, or something else at
least vaguely logical?
Electron Clouds and Energy Levels
so why is it that s only holds two electrons, but p
has room for six?
Well...remember that each
electron is existing in one of those strange
probability clouds, which, as you've seen, can have
widely varying shapes and sizes. Another statement of
Pauli exclusion principle I mentioned is this: no
two electrons in an atom can be in the same type of
cloud with the same spin.
you're saying that p electrons have more cloud shapes
available to them?
However, p and d states are more interesting:
there can be several different-shaped clouds at the
same energy. For example, here are two p states from
the second primary level:
It turns out that there are three kinds of p
clouds in each primary level.
...and each one can hold a spin up and a spin down,
so that's why six electrons fit into the p column!
Very good. You can think of each
electron's "quantum state," its full, unique
description, as being the sum of a particular
probability cloud plus a spin:
Futhermore, there are five different shapes for d
(hence room for ten electrons), and seven in the next
sublevel, f...I hope you're noticing a pattern here.
(If you want to know more about where these numbers
come from, go ask Dr. Mahan about
Electron Configurations and the Periodic Table
understand the rules so far, but I still have a lot
of questions. First of all, I can see from the chart
that the lowest row only has s electrons, but the
next row has electrons in both the s level and the p
level, or whatever you're supposed to call them...
"Sublevel" is fine; you can also speak of electrons'
being in s or p "states." You'll frequently hear
these states called orbitals, especially in
chemistry. Of course, that term can be a little
yeah, I know--because electrons don't really orbit.
Good, you've been paying attention. Incidentally, the s states in the first primary level are called 1s orbitals, those in the second row 2s, and so forth.
Now, to return to your
question: another rule you'll have to remember is
that the number of sublevels increases with each
primary energy level. The first row has just s
orbitals, the second has s and p, the third s, p, and
d, and so forth.
The way the periodic table is
arranged is starting to make sense to me now. The
rows of the table match up with the primary energy
levels--that's why the first row only has two
elements. In the second row, lithium and beryllium
are filling the two 2s spots; then there's a big
space because the next six elements are filling the
exactly right. Now look at the third row; is it the
way you'd expect it to be?
and magnesium (Mg) add the two 3s electrons, and then
the next six elements, up to argon (Ar), fill the 3p
orbitals. That's all fine, but why does the row end
there? This row should have a d sublevel, too, if you
were telling the truth.
lie--but I won't deny that there are more subtleties
I haven't yet revealed to you. Click on potassium (K),
the first element in the fourth row.
Now there's an electron in an 4s state, and still
nothing in the 3d orbitals. How do you explain
Electron Configurations and the Periodic Table II
never come right out and said this, but I'm sure
you've noticed that the energy levels get filled in
order from lowest energy to highest; when you add a
new electron, it goes into the lowest-energy state
that's pretty obvious. That's why I thought the next
electron for potassium would go into a d orbital
instead of up to a whole new row--you
said that a higher primary level always means a
in potassium, the 4s orbitals end up with less energy
than the 3d states--that's why potassium starts a new
row in the periodic table. I bet calcium (Ca) puts an
electron in that second 4s orbital...yup, it does.
click on scandium (Sc).
the 3d orbitals are getting some attention! All those
elements from scandium through zinc (Zn) are just
filling the ten green d spaces. Then gallium (Ga)
goes back up and starts the 4p orbital.
This periodic table ends at krypton, when the 4p orbitals are filled--but of course one can keep going. Click here to open an extended version of the periodic table, which shows the electron configurations for the elements up to 103. I'll let you play around with this and figure out the order in which the various orbitals are filled.
A note about the arrangement of elements: barium (Ba) is element number 56; element 57, lanthanum (La), begins that first separate row at the bottom, which continues up to number 71, lutetium (Lu). Number 72, hafnium (Hf), is up next to barium again. A similar thing happens in the seventh row of the table. Look at the electron configurations and see if you can tell why these elements are arranged in this way.
A Chemists' Perspective on the Periodic Table
right, I think I understand now why the periodic
table is laid out the way it is. The rows go with the
primary energy levels...
there are different sections of the table that go
with the different sublevels.
right; you can think of the table as being divided
into "blocks" like this:
makes so much sense! Now I can see why someone had
the idea of putting the elements in a table like
this; once you know how the electron configurations
work, this arrangement wouldn't be so hard to come up
Actually, the first designer of the periodic table
knew nothing about energy levels or even electrons;
at the time, hardly anything was known about
the structure of atoms.
Then how would anyone know which elements to put
Well, that's quite an interesting story. You see, there's more to the periodic table than just electron configurations. Up until now I've been giving you a physicist's view--from the bottom up, so to speak. Now we'll look at the periodic table from a chemist's perspective, from the top down.
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