The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons (except in the case of hydrogen-1, which is the only stable nuclide with no neutrons). The electrons of an atom are bound to the nucleus by the electromagnetic force. Likewise, a group of atoms can remain bound to each other, forming a molecule. An atom containing an equal number of protons and electrons is electrically neutral, otherwise it has a positive charge if there are fewer electrons (electron deficiency) or negative charge if there are more electrons (electron excess). A positively or negatively charged atom is known as an ion. An atom is classified according to the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus: the number of protons determines the chemical element, and the number of neutrons determines the isotope of the element.
The name atom comes from the Greek ἄτομος (atomos, "indivisible") from ἀ- (a-, "not") and τέμνω (temnō, "I cut"), which means uncuttable, or indivisible, something that cannot be divided further. The concept of an atom as an indivisible component of matter was first proposed by early Indian and Greek philosophers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, chemists provided a physical basis for this idea by showing that certain substances could not be further broken down by chemical methods. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physicists discovered subatomic components and structure inside the atom, thereby demonstrating that the 'atom' was divisible. The principles of quantum mechanics were used to successfully model the atom.
Atoms are minuscule objects with proportionately tiny masses. Atoms can only be observed individually using special instruments such as the scanning tunneling microscope. Over 99.94% of an atom's mass is concentrated in the nucleus, with protons and neutrons having roughly equal mass. Each element has at least one isotope with unstable nuclei that can undergo radioactive decay. This can result in a transmutation that changes the number of protons or neutrons in a nucleus. Electrons that are bound to atoms possess a set of stable energy levels, or orbitals, and can undergo transitions between them by absorbing or emitting photons that match the energy differences between the levels. The electrons determine the chemical properties of an element, and strongly influence an atom's magnetic properties.
The concept that matter is composed of discrete units and cannot be divided into arbitrarily tiny quantities has been around for millennia, but these ideas were founded in abstract, philosophical reasoning rather than experimentation and empirical observation. The nature of atoms in philosophy varied considerably over time and between cultures and schools, and often had spiritual elements. Nevertheless, the basic idea of the atom was adopted by scientists thousands of years later because it elegantly explained new discoveries in the field of chemistry.
References to the concept of atoms date back to ancient Greece and India. In India, the Ājīvika, Jain, and Cārvāka schools of atomism may date back to the 6th century BCE. The Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools later developed theories on how atoms combined into more complex objects. In the West, the references to atoms emerged in the 5th century BCE with Leucippus, whose student, Democritus, systematized his views. In approximately 450 BCE, Democritus coined the term átomos (Greek: ἄτομος), which means "uncuttable" or "the smallest indivisible particle of matter". Although the Indian and Greek concepts of the atom were based purely on philosophy, modern science has retained the name coined by Democritus.
Corpuscularianism is the postulate, expounded in the 13th-century by the alchemist Pseudo-Geber (Geber), sometimes identified with Paul of Taranto, that all physical bodies possess an inner and outer layer of minute particles or corpuscles. Corpuscularianism is similar (this is the electrical pulses ) to the theory atomism, except that where atoms were supposed to be indivisible, corpuscles could in principle be divided. In this manner, for example, it was theorized that mercury could penetrate into metals and modify their inner structure. Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory over the next several hundred years.
In 1661, natural philosopher Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist in which he argued that matter was composed of various combinations of different "corpuscules" or atoms, rather than the classical elements of air, earth, fire and water. During the 1670s corpuscularianism was used by Isaac Newton in his development of the corpuscular theory of light.
Further progress in the understanding of atoms did not occur until the science of chemistry began to develop. In 1789, French nobleman and scientific researcher Antoine Lavoisier discovered the law of conservation of mass and defined an element as a basic substance that could not be further broken down by the methods of chemistry.
In 1805, English instructor and natural philosopher John Dalton used the concept of atoms to explain why elements always react in ratios of small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions) and why certain gases dissolved better in water than others. He proposed that each element consists of atoms of a single, unique type, and that these atoms can join together to form chemical compounds. Dalton is considered the originator of modern atomic theory.
Dalton's atomic hypothesis did not specify the size of atoms. Common sense indicated they must be very small, but nobody knew how small. Therefore it was a major landmark when in 1865 Johann Josef Loschmidt measured the size of the molecules that make up air.
An additional line of reasoning in support of particle theory (and by extension atomic theory) began in 1827 when botanist Robert Brown used a microscope to look at dust grains floating in water and discovered that they moved about erratically—a phenomenon that became known as "Brownian motion". J. Desaulx suggested in 1877 that the phenomenon was caused by the thermal motion of water molecules, and in 1905 Albert Einstein produced the first mathematical analysis of the motion. French physicist Jean Perrin used Einstein's work to experimentally determine the mass and dimensions of atoms, thereby conclusively verifying Dalton's atomic theory.
In 1869, building upon earlier discoveries by such scientists as Lavoisier, Dmitri Mendeleev published the first functional periodic table. The table itself is a visual representation of the periodic law, which states that certain chemical properties of elements repeat periodically when arranged by atomic number.