What do the subscripts on the orbitals (such as px, py, pzetc) mean and how can one derive these or at least gain a fundamental understanding of each? Do they describe the geometry of the shape? And if so- how do derive them?

Please describe in an advanced high school level.


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    $\begingroup$ There's no "suborbitals" - these are just orbitals and subscript describes their orientation in space. $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Mar 5 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ Atomic orbitals are actually functions with a well defined (and rather complicated) mathematical form. We often have those functions coming in groups, where the shape is the same but the orientation is different. Those indexes help to identify which one we are talking about, and also help figure out symmetry properties. $\endgroup$ – Greg Mar 5 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't like the question, don't just downvoat it: help improve it. In my experience this question reflects a common confusion among beginners, and beginers, by definition, are not the best in formulating their questions. $\endgroup$ – Greg Mar 5 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ "Advanced high school level" is ambiguous. It would be helpful to know your math and/or physics background to help formulate an answer. Greg's comment is a helpful start down the right path. However, if you're looking for "fundamental understanding," you're only going to get there by studying quantum mechanics. $\endgroup$ – Zhe Mar 5 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Greg That's true, but I think OP is looking for more something deeper than that. $\endgroup$ – Zhe Mar 5 at 14:17

As a high school student, here’s how I considered it:

The wavefunction of an orbital describes the region of space that an electron residing in that orbital would be in about 90% of the time.

The wavefunctions would have a radial component (depending on period), which is why the 3p orbitals Arena larger than the 2p etc.

The wavefunction would also have an angular component, which would describe its shape.

In the case of the p orbitals, the x, y and z labels simply means that their angular components are x/r, y/r and z/r respectively (hence the subscript). Do note that we usually use the radial forms of the wavefunctions though.

Hope this helps.

  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the $x$, $y$, $z$ have more to do with the angular part of the wave function than the radial part. $\endgroup$ – Zhe Mar 5 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ I actually messed up- I meant the angular components were x/r, y/r and z/r $\endgroup$ – ANZGC FlyingFalcon Mar 6 at 9:50

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