At Cambridge University in England, in the forty-five years centered on 1910, the nature of the atom was first understood--partly by shooting pieces of atoms at atoms and watching how they bounce off. A typical atom has a kind of cloud of electrons on the outside. Electrons are electrically charged, as their name suggests. The charge is arbitrarily called negative. Electrons determine the chemical properties of the atom--the glitter of gold, the cold feel of iron, the crystal structure of the carbon diamond. Deep inside the atom, hidden far beneath the electron cloud, is the nucleus, generally composed of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons. Atoms are very small--one hundred million of them end to end would be as large as the tip of your little finger. But the nucleus is a hundred thousand times smaller still, which is part of the reason it took so long to be discovered. Nevertheless, most of the mass of an atom is in its nucleus; the electrons are by comparison just clouds of moving fluff. Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed chiefly of nothing.


- Excerpt from Cosmos, by Carl Sagan