Elan Morgan is a writer and web designer who works from Elan.Works, a designer and editor at GenderAvenger, and a speaker who has spoken across North America. They believe in and work to grow both personal and professional quality, genuine community, and meaningful content online.

What Is An Atomic Orbital?

Today, I discovered the beauty of atomic orbitals through an e-mail sent to me by my friend Mary:

atomic orbitals 1aHey [Schmutzie], check these out...

They are pictures of an electron and a proton, a hydrogen. They increase energy input to show off the shapes of the different orbitals as the electron speeds up, and moves through each orbital. The dark ones are only because they don't exist (p1, d1, d2).

They are so beautiful I think.


Did I understand what I was looking at? No, but I thought it was beautiful, too, and I got lost looking at atomic orbitals on the internet for an hour, so I did a little research into what they are.

Feel free to skip by all the new knowledge you could have to get to the actual point of this whole post at the end: pretty pictures of atomic orbitals.

A Short Lesson In Atomic Orbitals
by Schmutzie

An atomic orbital is the region in space that an electron is likely to inhabit when it travels around the nucleus of an atom. If you plotted the path of the Earth around the Sun, that would be an orbital.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, if I put it in extremely simplified terms, tells us that we cannot know where an electron is or where it is going to be next. Those electrons are crazy now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't free spirits. This means that you cannot plot a specific path of an electron around the nucleus of an atom, but if you plot each instant that an electron shows up, and if you do it over and over, you can slowly build up a three-dimensional map of the places that a particular electron is likely to be around that nucleus.

Think of it this way: you live in your house (or apartment or trailer or whathaveyou), but you don't spend your time in all the space your house has to offer, so you track all of the space that your body actually occupies for a week to show where you are likely to be found at any given time. The resulting image would show us that you were not likely to be found up in the corner by the ceiling or in the spaces between the walls where the heating ducts run.

Okay, look, I know that my example does not explain atomic orbitals by using something that orbits, but you get it, right?

There is also a lot of information regarding specifics like s, p, d, and f orbitals, but the whole point of this report was to give you the simplest explanation I could of what these pretty pictures are.

This is what some atomic orbitals look like:

atomic orbitals 1b


atomic orbitals 2


atomic orbitals 3


atomic orbitals 4


atomic orbitals 5


Pretty, no?

The End.

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