Saturday, 19 March 2011

Nuclear physics

Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those in nuclear medicine and magnetic resonance imaging, ion implantation in materials engineering, and radiocarbon dating in geology and archaeology.

The field of particle physics evolved out of nuclear physics and is typically taught in close association with nuclear physics.


The history of nuclear physics as a discipline distinct from atomic physics starts with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896,[1] while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts.[2] The discovery of the electron by J. J. Thomson a year later was an indication that the atom had internal structure. At the turn of the 20th century the accepted model of the atom was J. J. Thomson's plum pudding model in which the atom was a large positively charged ball with small negatively charged electrons embedded inside of it. By the turn of the century physicists had also discovered three types of radiation emanating from atoms, which they named alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Experiments in 1911 by Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, and by James Chadwick in 1914 discovered that the beta decay spectrum was continuous rather than discrete. That is, electrons were ejected from the atom with a range of energies, rather than the discrete amounts of energies that were observed in gamma and alpha decays. This was a problem for nuclear physics at the time, because it indicated that energy was not conserved in these decays.

In 1905, Albert Einstein formulated the idea of mass–energy equivalence. While the work on radioactivity by Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie predates this, an explanation of the source of the energy of radioactivity would have to wait for the discovery that the nucleus itself was composed of smaller constituents, the nucleons.

Rutherford's team discovers the nucleus

In 1907 Ernest Rutherford published "Radiation of the α Particle from Radium in passing through Matter."[3] Geiger expanded on this work in a communication to the Royal Society[4] with experiments he and Rutherford had done passing α particles through air, aluminum foil and gold leaf. More work was published in 1909 by Geiger and Marsden[5] and further greatly expanded work was published in 1910 by Geiger,[6] In 1911-2 Rutherford went before the Royal Society to explain the experiments and propound the new theory of the atomic nucleus as we now understand it.

The key experiment behind this announcement happened in 1910 at the University of Manchester, as Ernest Rutherford's team performed a remarkable experiment in which Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under his supervision fired alpha particles (helium nuclei) at a thin film of gold foil. The plum pudding model predicted that the alpha particles should come out of the foil with their trajectories being at most slightly bent. Rutherford had the idea to instruct his team to look for something that shocked him to actually observe: a few particles were scattered through large angles, even completely backwards, in some cases. He likened it to firing a bullet at tissue paper and having it bounce off. The discovery, beginning with Rutherford's analysis of the data in 1911, eventually led to the Rutherford model of the atom, in which the atom has a very small, very dense nucleus containing most of its mass, and consisting of heavy positively charged particles with embedded electrons in order to balance out the charge (since the neutron was unknown). As an example, in this model (which is not the modern one) nitrogen-14 consisted of a nucleus with 14 protons and 7 electrons (21 total particles), and the nucleus was surrounded by 7 more orbiting electrons.

The Rutherford model worked quite well until studies of nuclear spin were carried out by Franco Rasetti at the California Institute of Technology in 1929. By 1925 it was known that protons and electrons had a spin of 1/2, and in the Rutherford model of nitrogen-14, 20 of the total 21 nuclear particles should have paired up to cancel each other's spin, and the final odd particle should have left the nucleus with a net spin of 1/2. Rasetti discovered, however, that nitrogen-14 has a spin of 1.

James Chadwick discovers the neutron

In 1932 Chadwick realized that radiation that had been observed by Walther Bothe, Herbert L. Becker, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie was actually due to a neutral particle of about the same mass as the proton, that he called the neutron (following a suggestion about the need for such a particle, by Rutherford). In the same year Dmitri Ivanenko suggested that neutrons were in fact spin 1/2 particles and that the nucleus contained neutrons to explain the mass not due to protons, and that there were no electrons in the nucleus—only protons and neutrons. The neutron spin immediately solved the problem of the spin of nitrogen-14, as the one unpaired proton and one unpaired neutron in this model, each contribute a spin of 1/2 in the same direction, for a final total spin of 1.

With the discovery of the neutron, scientists at last could calculate what fraction of binding energy each nucleus had, from comparing the nuclear mass with that of the protons and neutrons which composed it. Differences between nuclear masses were calculated in this way and—when nuclear reactions were measured—were found to agree with Einstein's calculation of the equivalence of mass and energy to high accuracy (within 1 percent as of in 1934).
Proca's equations of the massive vector boson field

Alexandru Proca was the first to develop and report the massive vector boson field equations and a theory of the mesonic field of nuclear forces. Proca's equations were known to Wolfgang Pauli[7] who mentioned the equations in his Nobel address, and they were also known to Yukawa, Wentzel,Taketani, Sakata,Kemmer,Heitler and Fröhlich who appreciated the content of Proca's equations for developing a theory of the atomic nuclei in Nuclear Physics

Yukawa's meson postulated to bind nuclei

In 1935 Hideki Yukawa proposed the first significant theory of the strong force to explain how the nucleus holds together. In the Yukawa interaction a virtual particle, later called a meson, mediated a force between all nucleons, including protons and neutrons. This force explained why nuclei did not disintegrate under the influence of proton repulsion, and it also gave an explanation of why the attractive strong force had a more limited range than the electromagnetic repulsion between protons. Later, the discovery of the pi meson showed it to have the properties of Yukawa's particle.

With Yukawa's papers, the modern model of the atom was complete. The center of the atom contains a tight ball of neutrons and protons, which is held together by the strong nuclear force, unless it is too large. Unstable nuclei may undergo alpha decay, in which they emit an energetic helium nucleus, or beta decay, in which they eject an electron (or positron). After one of these decays the resultant nucleus may be left in an excited state, and in this case it decays to its ground state by emitting high energy photons (gamma decay).

The study of the strong and weak nuclear forces (the latter explained by Enrico Fermi via Fermi's interaction in 1934) led physicists to collide nuclei and electrons at ever higher energies. This research became the science of particle physics, the crown jewel of which is the standard model of particle physics which describes the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces.

Modern nuclear physics

A heavy nucleus can contain hundreds of nucleons which means that with some approximation it can be treated as a classical system, rather than a quantum-mechanical one. In the resulting liquid-drop model, the nucleus has an energy which arises partly from surface tension and partly from electrical repulsion of the protons. The liquid-drop model is able to reproduce many features of nuclei, including the general trend of binding energy with respect to mass number, as well as the phenomenon of nuclear fission.

Superimposed on this classical picture, however, are quantum-mechanical effects, which can be described using the nuclear shell model, developed in large part by Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Nuclei with certain numbers of neutrons and protons (the magic numbers 2, 8, 20, 50, 82, 126, ...) are particularly stable, because their shells are filled.

Other more complicated models for the nucleus have also been proposed, such as the interacting boson model, in which pairs of neutrons and protons interact as bosons, analogously to Cooper pairs of electrons.

Much of current research in nuclear physics relates to the study of nuclei under extreme conditions such as high spin and excitation energy. Nuclei may also have extreme shapes (similar to that of Rugby balls) or extreme neutron-to-proton ratios. Experimenters can create such nuclei using artificially induced fusion or nucleon transfer reactions, employing ion beams from an accelerator. Beams with even higher energies can be used to create nuclei at very high temperatures, and there are signs that these experiments have produced a phase transition from normal nuclear matter to a new state, the quark-gluon plasma, in which the quarks mingle with one another, rather than being segregated in triplets as they are in neutrons and protons.

Nuclear decay

Eighty elements have at least one stable isotope never observed to decay, amounting to a total of about 255 stable isotopes. However, thousands of isotopes have been characterized that are unstable. These radioisotopes decay over time scales ranging from fractions of a second to weeks, years, or billions of years.

The stability of a nucleus is highest when it falls into a certain range or balance of composition of neutrons and protons; too few or too many neutrons may cause it to decay. For example, in beta decay a nitrogen-16 atom (7 protons, 9 neutrons) is converted to an oxygen-16 atom (8 protons, 8 neutrons) within a few seconds of being created. In this decay a neutron in the nitrogen nucleus is converted into a proton and an electron and an antineutrino by the weak nuclear force. The element is transmuted to another element in by acquiring the created proton.

In alpha decay the radioactive element decays by emitting a helium nucleus (2 protons and 2 neutrons), giving another element, plus helium-4. In many cases this process continues through several steps of this kind, including other types of decays, until a stable element is formed.

In gamma decay, a nucleus decays from an excited state into a lower energy state, by emitting a gamma ray. The element is not changed to another element in the process (no nuclear transmutation is involved).

Other more exotic decays are possible (see the main article). For example, in internal conversion decay, the energy from an excited nucleus may be used to eject one of the inner orbital electrons from the atom, in a process which produces high speed electrons, but is not beta decay, and (unlike beta decay) does not transmute one element to another.