Questions people have asked me about electrons

In the past I’ve been asked a few questions about electrons.  Here are some of them, along with their exciting answers.


Q:  How does an atomic orbital differ from a Bohr orbital?

A:  They’re not little tracks on which electrons travel.

You’ve been taught since early childhood that electrons are little particles that go zipping around inside of an atom. This is essentially the Bohr model of an orbital: Electrons orbit the nucleus in specific paths just as the planets orbit the sun in their specific paths.

Up through Bohr, people basically agreed that this was the case. However, the quantum model describes electrons as waves, not as particles. These waves, like any other wave, occupy an area of space. In the case of electrons, this space is the orbital.

When you see the double-lobed p-orbital, the electron doesn’t move around inside of the orbital. Instead, the electron has the shape and size defined by the orbital.


Q:  What is an orbital?

A:  An orbital is where electrons live.

I know that sounds pretty stupid, but hear me out. An orbital is basically a region of space which can be occupied by an electron. An empty orbital doesn’t have any physical reality, it’s just a description of where the electron would be if it had the right properties. When an orbital is filled, the electron inside of it simply has the properties of that orbital.


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