Nuclear Physics
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Nuclear Physics

Principles and Applications

John Lilley

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eBook - ePub

Nuclear Physics

Principles and Applications

John Lilley

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About This Book

This title provides the latest information on nuclear physics. Based on a course entitled Applications of Nuclear Physics. Written from an experimental point of view this text is broadly divided into two parts, firstly a general introduction to Nuclear Physics and secondly its applications.

  • Includes chapters on practical examples and problems
  • Contains hints to solving problems which are included in the appendix
  • Avoids complex and extensive mathematical treatments
  • A modern approach to nuclear physics, covering the basic theory, but emphasising the many and important applications

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Introduction and Basic Concepts


It was in 1896 that Becquerel in France detected, by chance, faint traces of the existence of the nucleus in the atom. For many years after that the study of nuclear physics remained a curiosity and intellectual challenge to scientists, but had little practical use outside its own field. The situation changed totally in the 1930s with discoveries that culminated in the cataclysmic demonstrations near the end of the second world war of the immense energy locked up by the force that holds the atomic nucleus together. An unprecedented and irrevocable step had been taken in the degree of power available to humankind with dramatic consequences for good and ill.
Today, nuclear physics has entered into our modern world in a significant way. It influences other branches of science: chemistry, biology, archaeology, geology, engineering, astrophysics and cosmology. It is used widely in society at large – in industry, the environment, medicine, defence, criminology, power production and many other areas. Applications are found even in religion and the arts, where equipment and methods developed originally for nuclear research have found novel application. However, the exploitation of such a powerful force carries with it some danger and is the subject of much debate.
The main aim of this book is to address the broad range and variety of the techniques and applications of nuclear physics used today. The basic physics underlying them is given first in order that the benefits and drawbacks can be properly appreciated. No particular stance is taken on controversial issues. The view taken is that a proper understanding of the subject is important and necessary in order that wise decisions can be taken about how nuclear energy and nuclear radiation should be used.
Essential nuclear physics for understanding the applications is given in this first chapter. Other chapters in Part I give further development of the topics introduced in Chapter 1. The coverage of the applications in Part II is by no means exhaustive. It is intended broadly to inform the reader and provide a suitable preparation for those students who plan to take more advanced courses on any of the separate topics.
Unlike atomic physics, which is underpinned by electromagnetism, there is no fundamental theoretical formalism that completely describes nuclei and nuclear behaviour. For example, there is no formula, analogous to Coulomb’s law for the force between two electric charges, which exactly expresses the force between two basic constituents of the nucleus. Progress in understanding the nature of nuclei is made using approximate models, each of which provides insight into the complexity of the real situation, but with a limited range of applicability. Models are drawn from analogy with classical and other branches of physics and are formulated to be consistent with observed properties and behaviour. Conceptual models played a vital role in the first few decades of the twentieth century when the basic framework of the subject was being established. The following section is a short account of this early period.


The history of the nucleus dates from the latter years of the nineteenth century with the observation by Becquerel in 1896 of the fogging of photographic plates by an unknown radiation emanating from uranium-bearing rocks. He had encountered radioactivity. Detailed studies of this new phenomenon began to be made, notably by Marie and Pierre Curie in France and by Ernest Rutherford, who had come to England from New Zealand earlier in 1895 to work in Cambridge with J. J. Thompson (who discovered the electron in 1897). It was soon revealed that there are three, distinctly different types of radiation emitted by radioactive substances. They were called alpha (α), beta (β) and gamma (γ) rays – terms which have been retained to this day.
The most far-reaching advances in the subject during this early phase were made by Rutherford. He and his co-workers, first in Canada (1898–1907) and later in Manchester, England (1907–1919), began an intensive study of the new radiations. All the laws governing radioactive decay were established. It was shown that α- and β-radioactive decays change the nature of the element and that a particles are helium nuclei. Beta particles were found to be the same as electrons, and γ rays were identified as energetic photons (electromagnetic radiation).
Rutherford used α particles to probe the structure of the atom itself. It was already known that the atom consisted of positively charged and negatively charged components, but there were two very different models for describing how these components might combine to form an atom. The ‘planetary9 model assumed that light, negatively charged electrons orbit a heavy, positively charged nucleus. The problem with this model was that the electrons would be constantly accelerating and should radiate energy as electromagnetic waves, causing the atom to collapse. In an alternative model, proposed by J. J. Thompson, the electrons are embedded and free to move in an extended region of positive charge filling the entire volume of the atom. Such an atom would not collapse, but Thompson had difficulty in developing his model. For example, he was never able to account successfully for the discrete wavelengths observed in the spectra of light emitted by excited atoms.
The crucial breakthrough came from experiments carried out by Rutherford and his team in Manchester, who were studying the passage of a particles through matter. It was noted that very thin foils of gold caused a particles to be deflected occasionally through large angles and even in the backward direction. Rutherford realized that this could not be due to the combined effect of a large number of small-angle deflections and could only be explained if the a particle had encountered a tiny, but heavy, charged entity less than 1/1000th of the atom in size. Undaunted by the fact that the planetary model should not exist according to classical theory, he proposed that the atom does consist of a small, heavy positively charged centre surrounded by orbiting electrons which occupy the vast bulk of the atom‘s volume. The simplest atom, hydrogen, consisted of a proton and a single orbital electron.
Many atomic masses were known to be approximately integer multiples of a basic unit of mass about 1% lighter than the mass of the hydrogen atom. For example, the atomic masses of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, expressed in these units, are approximately 12.0, 14.0 and 16.0, respectively. However, there are notable exceptions, such as the element chlorine, which has an atomic mass of 35.5 of these units. The idea that an element could consist of differing isotopes, which are atoms whose nuclei have different masses but the same charge, was put forward by Soddy in 1911. This explained the existence of anomalous atomic weights, like chlorine, but reinforced an idea, which was current at that time, of nuclei consisting of different numbers of protons and electrons bound together in some way. The proton-electron model persisted for many years until developments in quantum mechanics exposed its shortcomings. No one, for example, could explain why an electron with enough energy to be emitted in β decay was not emitted instantly. Indeed, an estimate of the energy required to keep an electron inside the nucleus (see Problem 1.3) was many times greater than the energies seen in β decay, and an attractive force strong enough to do this would have effects on atomic spectra, which were not observed.
Little progress was made until 1932, when James Chadwick proposed the existence of the neutron, an uncharged nuclear constituent whose existence had been anticipated by Rutherford as early as 1920.1 Bothe and Becker, in 1930, had observed highly penetrating, uncharged radiation from the a-particle bombard...

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