Atomic Structure and Periodic Properties
But what exactly is the configuration of those electrons? That's the key to
understanding why each element behaves the way it does.
"Configuration"? I'm not sure I understand what that means. Does it have
something to do with that chart in the applet, the one that says "s p d" at
Yes; that chart shows how the electrons are arranged in the selected
element. I'd be happy to explain in detail how
the electrons organize themselves; if you'd prefer, I can also give you a
short crash course in interpreting the chart.
There are two patterns to be explained: atoms get bigger as you go down a
group, and smaller as you go to the right across a period. The reason for the
first one shouldn't be so hard to see now; look again down the column of
alkali metals in the applet.
Each time you move down, you add another primary level--lithium's highest
electron is in a 2s state, for sodium it's 3s, and so on.
Exactly. And the higher an electron's energy, the farther from the nucleus it is.
So the atoms get bigger as you add electrons to higher energy levels--that
makes sense. But why do they get smaller as you move to the right?
Well, you'll notice that within a period, the outermost
electrons are all in the same primary level--that is, at (roughly) the same
distance from the nucleus. But as you move to the right, the elements increase
in atomic number; each element has one more
proton than its left-hand neighbor. The more protons in the nucleus, the more
strongly the valence electrons are pulled in...
...and so the atoms shrink! Also, I can see from the chart that the ionization energies get larger as you go to the right;
that must be for the same reason.
Very good! Similarly, the ionization energies decrease as you move
down a group.