Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Electron Conceptualization
Name: Timothy
Status: student
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A

Yes, I am only a lay person of physics but enjoy reading about it on the Internet. And have always wondered about electrons in so called orbitals. Which shows where they are most likely to be found. And this is because I do not see the electron as a particle but instead as a standing wave. With the nodal point as the point particle. (Which I learned from reading about the studies of Milo Wolffe.) And so, my question is, can electron orbitals be reconciled with the electron as a standing wave? Since its nodal point is also rapidly oscillating up and down as a point particle? Just as an electron (as a smear) may do inside its orbital? And I also make this comparison because I have a hard time with the notion of probability. That is, the exact position of the electron can never be known. But determined by probability. Because if you consider it as a nodal point, then the "pattern" of oscillation is an established thing without randomness? Having a reason and mechanism for its behavior?


The greatest problem when talking about and electron orbital is that one cannot even truly say a standing wave will work. An orbital is not a loop around the nucleus with a standing wave on it. This does agree with some of the properties of electrons in orbit, but not with all of them. Electron orbitals have a variety of shapes, all of them being three-dimensional. Some are solid spheres. Some are shaped more like an hour-glass with the nucleus near at the narrowest point. Higher level orbitals are too difficult to describe with just a few words. The standing wave model is used because in many cases it does work just as well as the quantum physics model. Sometimes, just a ball orbiting in a circle around the nucleus works well enough to be useful.

Just like all other individual "particles", an electron is not really a particle or a wave. Physics has found that an electron sometimes acts more like what we call a particle. Sometimes, however, it acts more like what we call a wave. It is not really either one. How it behaves can depend on things such as how you measure it. We know what electrons can do. We know what they cannot do. We know how they interact with other things. We know many things about electrons. Still, we do not actually know what they are.

Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Physics Instructor
Illinois Central College

You do not have to apologize for your questioning, that is what scientific research is made of. It is useful to use the history of the "end result" to gain an insight of how the mechanics works.

If you bring a proton (electrical charge of +1) and an electron (electrical charge of -1) near one another, classical electrical theory predicts that the two particles will spiral into one another, giving off radiation until the "product" is a combination of the two particles, giving off radiation that is the energy of the combined particles (E= m x c^2). The combination of a single proton and a single electron is just a hydrogen atom, the simplest of all atoms. The difference in their masses changes the "numbers" but does not change the end result.

However, there was a "problem". Classical theory, very deeply imbedded in classical theory, did not agree with the observations! Instead, the electron and proton in a hydrogen atom do not spiral with a continuum of radiation. Rather, the radiation occurred in a set of very specific frequencies, and the electron and proton do not "destroy" one another.

Niels Bohr made a profound assumption: He proposed that the orbit of the electron was limited to certain energy differences. You have to appreciate this radical assumption in generations of successful predictions of the behavior of electrically charged species. Bohr's atom broke all the existing rules.

The "story" goes on approximately at the same time. Other observations began not to "fit" the picture of classical theory. Without getting into the details (although they are by no means trivial), Erwin Schroedinger (~1926) introduced "quantum numbers" in a "natural way". His equations were based on the formalization of waves -- hence the "wave equation". Shortly thereafter other formulations were developed (Dirac).

This is too involved to be developed here; however, the text: "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics" by Linus Pauling and E. Bright Wilson provides an accurate and detailed account of the development of quantum mechanics as applied to chemistry.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory