After reading this section you will be able to do the following:
- Explain the differences between electrons and protons.
- Predict what happens when protons and electrons interact with other protons or electrons.
Electrons are the smallest and lightest of the particles in an atom. Electrons are in constant motion as they circle around the nucleus of that atom. Electrons are said to have a negative charge, which means that they seem to be surrounded by a kind of invisible force field. This is called an electrostatic field.
Protons are much larger and heavier than electrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge. This positively charged electrostatic field is exactly the same strength as the electrostatic field in an electron, but it is opposite in polarity. Notice the negative electron (pictured at the top left) and the positive proton (pictured at the right) have the same number of force field lines in each of the diagrams. In other words, the proton is exactly as positive as the electron is negative.
Like charges repel, unlike charges attract
Two electrons will tend to repel each other because both have a negative electrical charge. Two protons will also tend to repel each other because they both have a positive charge. On the other hand, electrons and protons will be attracted to each other because of their unlike charges.
Since the electron is much smaller and lighter than a proton, when they are attracted to each other due to their unlike charges, the electron usually does most of the moving. This is because the protons have more mass and are harder to get moving. Although electrons are very small, their negative electrical charges are still quite strong. Remember, the negative charge of an electron is the same as the positive electrical charge of the much larger in size proton. This way the atom stays electrically balanced.
Another important fact about the electrical charges of protons and electrons is that the farther away they are from each other, the less force their electric fields have on each other. Similarly, the closer they are to each other, the more force they will experience from each other due to this invisible force field called an electric field.
- Electrons have a negative electrostatic charge and protons have a positive electrostatic charge.
- A good way to remember what charge protons have is to remember both proton and positive charge start with "P."
- Like charges repel, unlike charges attract, just like with magnets.