Isotopes and Atomic Weights

For a given element, such as oxygen, the number of neutrons can vary. But no matter what the number of neutrons, the element keeps its identity, based on the atomic number. Differing numbers of neutrons result in various isotopes for a given element.

Each element has one particular isotope that is most often found in nature. But all elements have numerous isotopes. Changing the number of neutrons in an element’s nucleus results in a difference in the weight, and also a difference in the density, of the element. Thus, hydrogen containing a neutron or two in the nucleus, along with the proton, is called heavy hydrogen.

The atomic weight of an element is approximately equal to the sum of the number of protons and the number of neutrons in the nucleus. Common carbon has an atomic weight of about 12, and is called carbon 12 or C12. But sometimes it has an atomic weight of about 14, and is known as carbon 14 or C14.