Evidence-based theories on the structure of atoms have been around since the early 1800s. Dalton’s billiard ball model was the first on the map, and with further discoveries and experiments — like Thompson’s discovery of the electron and Rutherford’s gold foil experiment — improved models of atomic structure were introduced.

The first GIF above shows Rutherford’s planetary model, which was proposed in 1911. In his model, negatively-charged electrons orbit an incredibly small, dense nucleus of positive charge. Despite being a completely incorrect model, most people still think this is what atoms really look like*. This is not an atom. It’s physically impossible for electrons to stably orbit like this, and the idea of orbiting electrons was entirely replaced by 1926.

I can’t say what an atom actually looks like, but the most accurate model we have today is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. The location of an electron is determined by a probability distribution, called an atomic orbital, which tells us the probability of an electron existing in any specific region around a nucleus. The second image shows the surface around a hydrogen nucleus on which an excited electron is most likely to exist.

Mathematica code posted here.

*Advertisements and popular science articles incorrectly represent atoms all the time. Even the US Atomic Energy Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency use the Rutherford model in their logos!