Atoms are all around us. They're the basic building blocks of all matter, of anything tangible, of all the stuff around us, including us! Scientists once believed that atoms were extremely small, solid, perfect spheres that were defined by their indivisibility. We now know that atoms can be broken up into smaller parts. The three main types of subatomic particles that make up atoms are protons, neutrons and electrons.
The dense material center of an atom, which is called the nucleus, is made of protons and neutrons. Protons are relatively massive particles that carry a positive charge, while neutrons are particles of nearly the same size that carry no charge at all. Outside the nucleus of an atom, there is a field of orbiting electrons, which are smaller than the nucleic particles and carry a negative charge. The negative electrons are attracted to the nucleus, and that force holds the atom together. Next time you stick a magnet on a refrigerator door, you'll be witnessing the same electrical force.
More atomic fun can be had when an atom is charged. An atom with an equal number of protons and electrons is said to be neutral (the positively-charged protons are balanced out by the negatively-charged electrons). If you add an extra electron to such an atom, it becomes negatively charged, and if you remove an electron it becomes positively charged. Charged atoms are called ions -- negatively charged atoms are called anions and positively charged atoms are called positive ions [source: Northwestern University].
Depending upon the atom, there can be anywhere from one to 103 electrons. They're very small, compared to protons -- just better than 1/2000 of their size. Scientists can manipulate electrons, such as removing them to charge an atom or to create an electrical current [source: Northwestern University].
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