Bayfield, James E. Department of Physics, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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The orbital arrangement of an atom's electrons. Negatively charged electrons are attracted to a positively charged nucleus to form an atom or ion. Although such bound electrons exhibit a high degree of quantum-mechanical wavelike behavior, there still remain particle aspects to their motion. Bound electrons occupy orbitals that are somewhat concentrated in spatial shells lying at different distances from the nucleus. As the set of electron energies allowed by quantum mechanics is discrete, so is the set of mean shell radii. Both these quantized physical quantities are primarily specified by integral values of the principal, or total, quantum number n. The full electron configuration of an atom is correlated with a set of values for all the quantum numbers of each and every electron. In addition to n, another important quantum number is l, an integer representing the orbital angular momentum of an electron in units of h/2π where h is Planck's constant. The values 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 for n and 0, 1, 2, 3, for l together suffice to describe the electron configurations of all known normal atoms and ions, that is, those that have their lowest possible values of total electronic energy. The first seven shells are also given the letter designations K, L, M, N, O, P, and Q, respectively. Electrons with l equal to 0, 1, 2, and 3 are designated s, p, d, and f, respectively. See also: Quantum mechanics; Quantum numbers
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