Given an element, why don't ALL the atoms of this element have the same mass?

1 Answer
Aug 24, 2016


Because of the existence of isotopes......


The atomic mass depends on the number of protons, and neutrons, massive nuclear particles.

For a given element, the number of postively charged, massive nuclear particles, the number of protons, is fixed. Why? Because the number of protons determines #Z#, the atomic number, which determines the identity of the atom.

The nucleus can also contains neutrons, massive, neutrally charged nuclear particles. If we go to the simplest element, hydrogen, most hydrogen nuclei contain only the 1 massive particle, which is of course a proton, we represent this isotope as #""^1H#. A small percentage of hydrogen nuclei contain 1 neutron, to give the deuterium isotope, #""^2H#; an even small percentage of hydrogen nuclei contains 2 neutrons, to give the tritium isotope, #""^3H#.

For heavier elements, especially transition metals, the isotopic distribution becomes quite large, as there are a number of stable isotopes available. The atomic mass printed on the Periodic Table is the weighted average of the masses of the individual isotopes in their particular proportions.