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The periodic table tells us that there are 6 protons in a carbon atom. Is there a way to verify this first-hand? Or are we just expected to believe it unquestioned?

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1) While not easy, it is possible to obtain mass-spectrum of full range of ions, including fully ionized. By number of peaks with Z/E corresponding as X, X/2, X/3 ... X/n it is possible to ensure that an element has exactly n electrons and protons. It is still difficult to ensure full ionization of heavier atoms, so the method is not applicable for heavier elements. This, however, is the only direct method I can think of. Should work for carbon, though.

2) Various X-ray-derived spectral methods. While not providing direct evidence, they do provide information on electronic shell structure, that can be compared with theoretical calculations.

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Carbon is defined as an atom with six protons (and 6 electrons). That is the nature of the periodic table. It is so per definition. I suppose your real question is: how can we determine if something is really carbon. Right?

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  • $\begingroup$ My real question would be 'how do we really know that what they've been telling us in school about atomic structure is true?' $\endgroup$ – eric Nov 16 '14 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric That what about the atomic structure is true? The atomic structure is a model. It is not known if it represents reality completely (probably not). This can never be known. $\endgroup$ – Jori Nov 16 '14 at 22:12

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