The Basics of an Atom
There are only about 100 different kinds of atoms in the entire universe. Everything we see is made up of these 100 atoms in an unlimited number of combinations. How these atoms are arranged and bonded together determines whether the atoms make up a cup of water, a piece of metal, or the fizz that comes out of your soda can!

Atoms are constantly in motion. They continuously vibrate, move and rotate. Even the atoms that make up the chairs that we sit in are moving around. Solids are actually in motion! Atoms can be in different states of excitation. In other words, they can have different energies. If we apply a lot of energy to an atom, it can leave what is called the ground-state energy level and go to an excited level. The level of excitation depends on the amount of energy that is applied to the atom via heat, light, or electricity.

Here is a classic interpretation of what the atom looks like:


An atom, in the simplest model,
consists of a nucleus and orbiting electrons.

This simple atom consists of a nucleus (containing the protons and neutrons) and an electron cloud. Its helpful to think of the electrons in this cloud circling the nucleus in many different orbits. Although more modern views of the atom do not depict discrete orbits for the electrons, it can be useful to think of these orbits as the different energy levels of the atom. In other words, if we apply some heat to an atom, we might expect that some of the electrons in the lower-energy orbitals would transition to higher-energy orbitals farther away from the nucleus.


Absorption of energy:
An atom absorbs energy in the form of heat, light, or electricity. Electrons may move from a lower-energy orbit to a higher-energy orbit.

This is a highly simplified view of things, but it actually reflects the core idea of how atoms work in terms of lasers.

Once an electron moves to a higher-energy orbit, it eventually wants to return to the ground state. When it does, it releases its energy as a photon -- a particle of light. You see atoms releasing energy as photons all the time. For example, when the heating element in a toaster turns bright red, the red color is caused by atoms, excited by heat, releasing red photons. When you see a picture on a TV screen, what you are seeing is phosphor atoms, excited by high-speed electrons, emitting different colors of light. Anything that produces light -- fluorescent lights, gas lanterns, incandescent bulbs -- does it through the action of electrons changing orbits and releasing photons.