The term atomic physics is often associated with nuclear power and nuclear bombs, due to the synonymous use of atomic and nuclear in standard English. However, physicists distinguish between atomic physics—which deals with the atom as a system comprising of a nucleus and electrons, and nuclear physics—which considers atomic nuclei alone.
As with many scientific fields, strict delineation can be highly contrived and atomic physics is often considered in the wider context of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Physics research groups are usually so classified.
Atomic physics always considers atoms in isolation. Atomic models will consist of a single nucleus which may be surrounded by one or more bound electrons. It is not concerned with the formation of molecules (although much of the physics is identical) nor does it examine atoms in a solid state as condensed matter. It is concerned with processes such as ionization and excitation by photons or collisions with atomic particles.
While modelling atoms in isolation may not seem realistic, if one considers atoms in a gas or plasma then the time-scales for atom-atom interactions are huge in comparison to the atomic processes that we are concerned with. This means that the individual atoms can be treated as if each were in isolation because for the vast majority of the time they are. By this consideration atomic physics provides the underlying theory in plasma physics and atmospheric physics even though both deal with huge numbers of atoms.
Electrons form notional shells around the nucleus. These are naturally in a ground state but can be excited by the absorption of energy from light (photons), magnetic fields, or interaction with a colliding particle (typically other electrons). The excited electron may still be bound to the nucleus and should, after a certain period of time, decay back to the original ground state. The energy is released as a photon. There are strict selection rules as to the electronic configurations that can be reached by excitation by light—however there are no such rules for excitation by collision processes.
An electron may be sufficiently excited so that it breaks free of the nucleus and is no longer part of the atom. The remaining system is an ion and the atom is said to have been ionized having been left in a charged state.
Clearly the earliest steps towards atomic physics was the recognition that matter was composed of atoms, in the modern sense of the basic unit of a chemical element. This theory was developed by the British chemist and physicist John Dalton in the 18th century. At this stage, it wasn't clear what atoms were although they could be described and classified by their properties (in bulk) in a periodic table.
The true beginning of atomic physics is marked by the discovery of spectral lines and attempts to describe the phenomenon, most notably by Joseph von Fraunhofer. The study of these lines led to the Bohr atom model and to the birth of quantum mechanics itself. In seeking to explain atomic spectra an entirely new mathematical model of matter was revealed. As far as atoms and their electron shells were concerned, not only did this yield a better overall description, i.e. the atomic orbital model, but it also provided a new theoretical basis for chemistry (quantum chemistry) and spectroscopy.
Since the Second World War, both theoretical and experimental fields have advanced at a great pace. This can be attributed to progress in computing technology which has allowed bigger and more sophisticated models of atomic structure and associated collision processes. Similar technological advances in accelerators, detectors, magnetic field generation and lasers have greatly assisted experimental work.