Nuclear physics

Field of physics that deals with the structure and behavior of atomic nuclei

The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Becquerel, for his discovery and to Marie and Pierre Curie for their subsequent research into radioactivity. Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908 for his "investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances".

With the discovery of the neutron, scientists could at last calculate what fraction of binding energy each nucleus had, by comparing the nuclear mass with that of the protons and neutrons which composed it. Differences between nuclear masses were calculated in this way. When nuclear reactions were measured, these were found to agree with Einstein's calculation of the equivalence of mass and energy to within 1% as of 1934.

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).

Other more exotic decays are possible (see the first main article). For example, in internal conversion decay, the energy from an excited nucleus may 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.

Nuclear fission is the reverse process to fusion. For nuclei heavier than nickel-62 the binding energy per nucleon decreases with the mass number. It is therefore possible for energy to be released if a heavy nucleus breaks apart into two lighter ones.