- atomic mass unit
- (u or amu)the unit of mass used by chemists and physicists for measuring the masses of atoms and molecules. Early in the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that each chemical element is composed of atoms, and that each chemical compound is composed of molecules in which atoms are combined in a fixed way. No one knew then just how small atoms and molecules really are, but as long as the relative weights of the different atoms were known, the outcome of chemical reactions could be predicted. These relative masses were determined by careful study of various reactions. The general idea was that atoms of hydrogen, known to be the lightest element, should have a mass of 1 amu, and all the other atoms should have masses which are multiples of this (then unknown) mass of the hydrogen atom. For a long time, physicists and chemists disagreed on the details of this definition. In 1960 they agreed on the definition of the unified atomic mass unit as 1/12 the mass of the most common atoms of carbon, known as carbon-12 atoms. (Most elements are mixtures of atoms which have different masses because they contain different numbers of neutrons; these varieties are called isotopes.) Careful experiments have measured the size of this unit; the currently accepted value (1998) is 1.660 538 782 x 10-27 kilograms. (This number equals 1 divided by Avogadro's number; see mole.) In addition, 1 amu equals approximately 931.494 028 MeV (see electronvolt). In biochemistry, the atomic mass unit is called the dalton (Da).
Dictionary of units of measurement. 2015.