Atomic number and mass number

The atomic number of an atom is the number of protons it contains. All the atoms of a particular element have the same atomic number (number of protons). The atoms of different elements have different numbers of protons. For example, all oxygen atoms have 8 protons and all sodium atoms have 11 protons.

The mass number of an atom is the total number of protons and neutrons it contains. The mass number of an atom is never smaller than the atomic number. It can be the same, but is usually bigger.

Full chemical symbols

Chlorine atom with mass number 35 and atomic number 17.The full symbol for a chlorine atom

If you know the atomic number and mass number you can calculate the number of each sub-atomic particle in an atom. The full chemical symbol for an element shows its mass number at the top, and its atomic number at the bottom.

This symbol tells you that the chlorine atom has 17 protons. It will also have 17 electrons, because the number of protons and electrons in an atom is the same.

The symbol also tells you that the total number of protons and neutrons in the chlorine atom is 35. Note that you can work out the number of neutrons by subtracting the atomic number from the mass number. In this example, it is 35 – 17 = 18 neutrons.