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An atom could be compared to a constant. The value of the atom is the atom itself. An atom name starts with a lower case letter.
A variable is a variable in the mathematical sense. You cannot change the value of a variable once it has been bound. A variable name starts with an upper case letter.
A reference is nothing but a unique value within the system. This value is not unique among several invocations of the runtime system.
The other types process identifier (Pids) and ports we will get back to later on.