What Can Dalton’s Atomic Theory Not Explain?


Diego Sanchez

Dalton’s atomic theory was a significant milestone in the field of chemistry. It laid the groundwork for modern atomic theory and helped scientists understand various chemical phenomena. However, despite its significance, Dalton’s atomic theory could not explain certain observations and experiments.

What is Dalton’s Atomic Theory?

Before delving into what Dalton’s atomic theory could not explain, let us first understand what it entails. John Dalton proposed this theory in the early 19th century, and it comprises the following postulates:

  • All matter is made up of atoms.
  • Atoms are indivisible and indestructible.
  • All atoms of an element are identical in mass and properties.
  • Compounds are formed by a combination of two or more different kinds of atoms.
  • A chemical reaction involves only the separation, combination, or rearrangement of atoms; it does not result in their creation or destruction.

What Can’t Dalton’s Atomic Theory Explain?

While Dalton’s atomic theory provided a solid foundation for understanding atomic structure and chemical reactions, it couldn’t explain the following phenomena:

1. Isotopes

Dalton’s atomic theory assumes that all atoms of an element have identical masses. However, this isn’t true as we now know that some elements have isotopes – different forms of an element with varying numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. For example, carbon-12 and carbon-14 are two isotopes of carbon with different masses.

2. Radioactivity

Dalton’s atomic theory states that atoms are indivisible and indestructible. However, scientists later discovered that some elements exhibit radioactivity – a property where their nuclei can spontaneously decay over time by emitting alpha (α), beta (β), or gamma (γ) radiation. This contradicts Dalton’s postulate that atoms are indestructible.

3. Subatomic Particles

Dalton’s atomic theory also didn’t account for the existence of subatomic particles – particles smaller than atoms. We now know that atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons, which have different masses and charges. Dalton’s theory only considered the existence of atoms as indivisible entities, without addressing their internal structure.

4. Chemical Bonding

While Dalton’s atomic theory explained how elements combine to form compounds, it didn’t elaborate on the mechanism of chemical bonding. Later research revealed that chemical bonds form due to the sharing or transfer of electrons between atoms, a concept not accounted for in Dalton’s theory.


In conclusion, while Dalton’s atomic theory was a significant milestone in the field of chemistry and provided a fundamental understanding of atomic structure and chemical reactions, it had its limitations. It couldn’t explain phenomena such as isotopes, radioactivity, subatomic particles, and chemical bonding. However, it laid the foundation for modern atomic theory, which incorporates these concepts and builds upon them to provide a more comprehensive understanding of matter and its behavior.