The Basics of Radioactivity: The Atom

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In the Boy Scout Atomic Energy Merit Badge book from 1984, it first states that a Boy Scout should be able to tell the meaning of the following items: alpha-particle, atom, background radiation, beta particle, curie, fallout, half-life, ionization, isotope, neutron, neutron activation, nuclear energy, nuclear reactor, particle accelerator, radiation, radioactivity, roentgen and x-ray.

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Today I am going to start with Atoms. Atoms were first talked about by the greeks in 400BC, over 2400 years ago. They believed that if you cut a piece of copper enough times, you would eventually have a piece that you could not cut any more. This would be the atom of copper. For the two thousand years there were many debates on whether or not an atom was real. It wasn’t until 1808 that John Dalton fathered the modern atomic theory and used it to explain how chemical reactions worked. By the late 1800’s atoms were being studied extensively in multiple countries.

But what is an atom? The definition of an atom is the smallest component of an element, characterized by a sharing of the chemical properties of the element and a nucleus with neutrons, protons and electrons. Once you go smaller than an atom, you no longer have the chemical properties of the element. When you combine atoms together, you form molecules.

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An atom

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