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The mass number (symbol A, from the German word Atomgewicht (atomic weight), also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons (together known as nucleons) in an atomic nucleus. It determines the atomic mass of atoms. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion. The mass number is different for each different isotope of a chemical element. This is not the same as the atomic number (Z) which denotes the number of protons in a nucleus, and thus uniquely identifies an element. Hence, the difference between the mass number and the atomic number gives the number of neutrons (N) in a given nucleus: .
The mass number is written either after the element name or as a superscript to the left of an element's symbol. For example, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12, or 12
, which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons. The full isotope symbol would also have the atomic number (Z) as a subscript to the left of the element symbol directly below the mass number: 12
. This is technically redundant, as each element is defined by its atomic number, so it is often omitted.
Different types of radioactive decay are characterized by their changes in mass number as well as atomic number, according to the radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy.
For example, uranium-238 usually decays by alpha decay, where the nucleus loses two neutrons and two protons in the form of an alpha particle. Thus the atomic number and the number of neutrons each decrease by 2 (Z: 92→90, N: 146→144), so that the mass number decreases by 4 (A = 238→234); the result is an atom of thorium-234 and an alpha particle (4
On the other hand, carbon-14 naturally decays by radioactive beta decay, whereby one neutron is transmuted into a proton with the emission of an electron and an anti-neutrino. Thus the atomic number increases by 1 (Z: 6→7) and the mass number remains the same (A = 14), while the number of neutrons decreases by 1 (N: 8→7). The resulting atom is nitrogen-14, with seven protons and seven neutrons:
Another type of radioactive decay without change in mass number is emission of a gamma ray from a nuclear isomer or metastable excited state of an atomic nucleus. Since all the protons and neutrons remain in the nucleus unchanged in this process, the mass number is also unchanged.
The mass number gives an estimate of the isotopic mass measured in atomic mass units (u). For 12C the isotopic mass is exactly 12, since the atomic mass unit is defined as 1/12 of the mass of 12C. For other isotopes, the isotopic mass is usually within 0.1 u of the mass number. For example, 35Cl (17 protons and 18 neutrons) has a mass number of 35 and an isotopic mass of 34.96885. The difference between mass number of an atom and its isotopic mass is known as the mass excess. Mass excess should not be confused with mass defect which is the difference between the mass of an atom and its constituent particles (namely protons, neutrons and electrons).
The mass number should also not be confused with the standard atomic weight (also called atomic weight) of an element, which is the ratio of the average atomic mass of the different isotopes of that element (weighted by abundance) to the unified atomic mass unit. The atomic weight is an actual mass (made relative, i.e., a ratio), while the mass number is a counted number (and so an integer).
This weighted average can be quite different from the near-integer values for individual isotopic masses. For instance, there are two main isotopes of chlorine: chlorine-35 and chlorine-37. In any given sample of chlorine that has not been subjected to mass separation there will be roughly 75% of chlorine atoms which are chlorine-35 and only 25% of chlorine atoms which are chlorine-37. This gives chlorine a relative atomic mass of 35.5 (actually 35.4527 g/mol).
Moreover, the weighted average mass can be near-integer, but at the same time not corresponding to the mass of any natural isotope. For example, bromine has only two stable isotopes, 79Br and 81Br, naturally present in approximately equal fractions, which leads to the standard atomic mass of bromine close to 80 (79.904 g/mol), even though the isotope 80Br with such mass is unstable.