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Basics of Chemistry: Does An Atom Have Color?

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An atom emitting colors
An atom

One of the fundamental building blocks in science is chemistry, and within the field of chemistry, learning the abilities of the atom is vital for future understanding.

Atoms are the building blocks of matter. Matter is anything that is able to take up space and mass. Elements, which are made up of atoms, are chemical substances that cannot be broken down into other substances. With individual characteristics, each element is able to provide different levels of reactivity and bonding.

In each element, there are three subatomic particles: the proton, electron, and neutron. The proton has a positive charge, the electron has a negative charge, and the neutron has no charge. The protons and neutrons are located in the nucleus, the central core containing almost the entirety of an atom’s mass. The electrons, however, are located on electron shells, the outermost region of an atom. The atomic mass of an element is determined by the number of protons and neutrons in an atom while the atomic number is only determined by the number of protons.

While each element can theoretically emit its own set of colors, understanding whether or not an atom has colors is up for debate. First, an atom’s color depends on one’s understanding of color. Color may refer to visible light with a specific frequency, but it can also mean something more general such as a fusion of visible light frequencies. If one uses the term “having a color” in a broad sense, then it can be proven that atoms do have color.

atom, radiation, thermal, science, heat, color, chemistry
Thermal Radiation (Berkeley Lab)

One way for atoms to emit color is through thermal radiation, which can be shown when you heat up a bar of iron to the point when it glows red. This red color is due to thermal radiation, a process in which the atoms of an object collide with each other so harshly causing the electrons to harness vast amounts of energy and then release the energy through light. Thermal radiation can emit many different colors since the color will be a result of the object’s temperature rather than the object’s material. Although thermal radiation proves that a group of atoms have the potential to emit light, it does not explicitly imply that an individual atom can emit its own color.


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