Since oppositely charged particles attract, and gravity is a phenomenon common to all particles, how come the electron is not 'sucked' into the nucleus?
Asked by: Tim Silverstein
First of all you can neglect gravity in your question. As an exercise you might try
computing the electrostatic attraction between an electron and a proton and compare it with
the gravitational attraction. You'll see that gravity is many millions of times weaker.
Still, why doesn't the electron end up in the nucleus with the proton? Well, first think
about the solar system. Why doesn't the earth end up in the sun? The answer is angular
momentum conservation. The earth has some large amount of angular momentum because we have
velocity perpendicular to the line from the sun to us. Since angular momentum is conserved
we stay in a stable orbit.
Now, what about the atom? Early models of the atom treated the atom as a solar system and
used the idea of angular momentum conservation to explain its stability. Then it was
realized that if the electron is moving in a circle then it must be accelerating (even
though the magnitude of its velocity may be constant, the fact that its velocity
changes direction means it's accelerating). But all accelerated charges radiate
energy. As it loses energy it loses angular momentum -- so it should spiral into the
nucleus. The fact that there are any atoms at all was a great mystery at the turn of the
last century -- it was one of the great problems that led to the development of quantum
In quantum mechanics angular momentum is not a continuous variable but it is quantized: it
comes in integer multiples of a fundamental unit given by Planck's constant. Now if you're
familiar with chemistry then you know about s-orbitals, p-orbitals, and so on. These are
quantum-mechanical states of an orbiting electron, each with a different integer value of
angular momentum. The 's' is for zero angular momentum, 'p' is for one unit and so on. Now
if you have any angular momentum then you're safe because your wavefunction does not
overlap the nucleus very much. That means it's pretty unlikely you'll ever find yourself in
the nucleus to encounter a positively charged proton. The 's'-orbital states, however,
actually do spend time in the nucleus! Why don't they annihilate with the protons?
The answer is...they do! But very, very rarely. The process by which a proton absorbs an
electron and becomes a neutron and a neutrino is known as 'inverse beta decay' and it
does happen in some atoms occasionally. Fortunately, the force that governs this
process is the weak force -- which got its name by being very, very weak. That means that
despite the fact that some 's'-orbital electrons occasionally end up in the nucleus they
rarely get absorbed by protons. Thus most atoms are stable and chemistry (and life) is
Answered by: Brent Nelson, M.A. Physics, Ph.D. Student, UC Berkeley
'There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap. The important thing is not to stop questioning.'