Response to Geoffrey Neuss on how to teach the 4s and 3d orbital conundrum


In the accompanying article in this issue Neuss challenges the explanation that was first suggested by Schwarz for how to teach the relative occupation and ionization of atomic orbitals in the atoms of metals in the first transition series. The present article is a response to Neuss’ critique which includes a detailed examination of his claim that there is no conclusive evidence for the view that the scandium and other first transition metal atoms lose 4s electrons in preference to those located in 3d orbitals.

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    I only know of very few exceptions. They include the textbooks by Oxtoby et al. (2007) as well as by Atkins and Jones (2013).

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    The only way to resolve this question conclusively would be to calculate the energies of the three candidate configurations that Neuss and I discuss. This would necessitate enumerating each of the Coulombic and exchange terms in the Sc atom and would represent a formidable calculation that none of the theoreticians that I consulted on this question were willing to undertake. I would like to think the following for suggestions on this response, Mike Melrose (London), Eugen Schwarz (Siegen), Chas McCaw (Winchester) and Michael Everest (Westmont College, Santa Barbara).


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  3. Pilar, F.L.: 4s is Always above 3d! J. Chem. Educ. 55, 2–6 (1978)

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  4. Scerri, E.R.: The trouble with the aufbau principle. Educ. Chem. 50(6), 2426 (2013). (See this article on the Education in Chemistry website:

  5. Schwarz, W.H.E.: The full story of the electron configurations of the transition elements. J. Chem. Educ. 87(4), 617–622 (2010)

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Correspondence to Eric Scerri.

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Scerri, E. Response to Geoffrey Neuss on how to teach the 4s and 3d orbital conundrum. Found Chem (2021).

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  • Aufbau
  • Electronic configurations
  • Orbital energies
  • Scandium atom
  • Transition metals