Isotope, one of two or more species of atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number and position in the periodic table and nearly identical chemical behavior but with different atomic masses and physical properties. Every chemical element has one or more isotopes.

An atom is first identified and labeled according to the number of protons in its nucleus. This atomic number is ordinarily given the symbol Z. The great importance of the atomic number derives from the observation that all atoms with the same atomic number have nearly, if not precisely, identical chemical properties. A large collection of atoms with the same atomic number constitutes a sample of an element. A bar of pure uranium, for instance, would consist entirely of atoms with atomic number 92. The periodic table of the elements assigns one place to every atomic number, and each of these places is labeled with the common name of the element, as, for example, calciumradon, or uranium.


Not all the atoms of an element need have the same number of neutrons in their nuclei. In fact, it is precisely the variation in the number of neutrons in the nuclei of atoms that gives rise to isotopes. Hydrogen is a case in point. It has the atomic number 1. Three nuclei with one proton are known that contain 0, 1, and 2 neutrons, respectively. The three share the place in the periodic table assigned to atomic number 1 and hence are called isotopes (from the Greek isos, meaning “same,” and topos, signifying “place”) of hydrogen.

Many important properties of an isotope depend on its mass. The total number of neutrons and protons (symbol A), or mass number, of the nucleus gives approximately the mass measured on the so-called atomic-mass-unit (amu) scale. The numerical difference between the actual measured mass of an isotope and A is called either the mass excess or the mass defect (symbol Δ; see table).

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