Atoms are the basic building blocks of matter and are composed of three subatomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons are positively charged, neutrons have no charge, and electrons carry a negative charge. The protons and neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom while electrons orbit around the nucleus in shells. The number of protons in the nucleus determines what element it is while the number of neutrons can vary within a given element. Protons and neutrons have approximately equal masses whereas electrons have much smaller masses. The number of electrons determines how an atom will interact with its environment since electrons influence an atom’s reactivity or ability to form chemical bonds with other atoms. The arrangement of electrons in shells or orbitals is also responsible for some fundamental properties such as atomic radius, ionization energy, electronegativity and electron affinity. The structure of atoms can be explained by quantum mechanics which states that all atoms contain energy levels that can only hold a certain number of electrons at each level. Electron orbitals indicate where these energy levels occur relative to the nucleus as well as their shape which can be spherical or more complex depending on how many electrons they contain.
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