1 Introduction to Nuclear Physics 1. Atomic Structure and the Periodic Table According to the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom, also called the solar system model, the atom consists of a central nucleus surrounded by electrons in orbits around the nucleus. The nucleus is very massive, and the electrons are very light. Both the electrons and the nucleus are very much smaller than the overall size of the atom (the electrons may actually have no size at all). Since the nucleus is positively charged and the electrons are negatively charged, the electrons are attracted toward the nucleus, like the planets are attracted toward the sun, and they orbit around the nucleus is somewhat the same way. While this model has deficiencies that we talk about later, it is sufficient for our present purposes. It turns out that the nucleus has exactly the same charge as the total of all the electrons, but of opposite sign. If the charge on a single electron is qe (negative), the nuclear charge is Zq e (positive), and the atom contains Z electrons, where the integer Z is called the atomic number. Curiously, these electrons organize themselves into shells, filling first the shell closest to the nucleus and working outward as more electrons are added. Two electrons can fit in the first shell, eight in the second, eighteen in the third, and so on. Unfortunately, the filling of the shells is not completely regular beyond the first two shells. Beginning with the third shell, electrons begin to add to the fourth shell before the third shell is completed, and this complicates things. But this is more important to the chemists than to the nuclear physicists, so we won t worry about the details here. The chemists tell us that the chemical properties of an atom depend on the electrons in the outermost shell. Since, through the somewhat complicated shell-filling rules, the number of electrons in the outermost shell is determined by the total number of electrons, the chemical properties of the atoms change in a regular, predictable way as more electrons are added, that is, as the nuclear charge (the atomic number Z ) increases. Once a shell is filled, the electrons begin filling the next shell and the sequence of chemical properties (alkali, alkali metal,..., halogen, rare gas) repeats itself. Thus, we can arrange the elements into the so-called periodic table, a discovery that actually preceded the discovery of the electron orbits around the nucleus.
2 2. Nuclear Structure The nucleus itself contains many particles, composed of two types. These are the protons and neutrons. The protons are positively charged, with a charge exactly equal and opposite that of the electrons. Since the overall charge of the atom is zero, there must be Z protons in the nucleus and Z electrons around it. Thus, the chemical properties of an element are determined by the atomic number Z of the nucleus. In addition there are N neutrons in the nucleus, so the total number of particles in the nucleus, called the mass number, is A= Z + N. The neutron number is not fixed, and need not be the same for all atoms of a given chemical element, since the number of neutrons doesn t affect the chemical properties (at least not very much). Atoms of the same chemical type (same atomic number Z ) with different numbers of neutrons (different N and therefore different A ) are called isotopes of the element. The properties of an atom are therefore completely specified by the atomic number Z and the mass number A. We therefore use the notation A X Z where X is the chemical symbol of the element, such as H for hydrogen, He for helium, Li for lithium, and so on, and the atomic mass A and and atomic number Z appear as superscripts and subscripts. Since the chemical properties of the element depend completely on the subscript Z, each chemical element X has a unique value of Z, so the subscript is actually redundant, and is frequently dropped. Thus, we may write 12 C for carbon 12, or simply 12 C. In addition, an atom can have some excess energy, in which case we represent it by the symbol 12 C * and call it an isomer. The extra energy can be given off as some form of radioactivity, in which case the isomer reverts to a normal atom. More on this later. 3. Nuclear Stability
3 Nuclear stability represents a precarious balance between two forces inside the nucleus, the strong force and the electric force. Take two protons, for example. The two protons, having the same (positive) electric charge, repel one another electrically. In addition, they are attracted to each other by the so-called strong force, which acts only when the protons are right next to each other. Despite its name, however, the strong force is not enough to hold the protons together, so we can t form a nucleus this way. All is not lost, however (as is obvious from the fact that atoms exist, even if you never saw one). Protons are also attracted to neutrons (and neutrons to neutrons) by the strong force, so if we take our two protons and add one or two neutrons, the net attraction is enough to hold the group together: So, how many neutrons can we add? Well, you might think that since they don t contribute to the repulsion we could add as many neutrons as we like, and in fact most nuclei have more neutrons than protons, but not many more. When there are too many neutrons they are not stable by themselves. In fact, a single, isolated neutron will last, on average, only about 15 minutes before it falls apart into a proton, an electron, and an antineutrino: n p+ e+ ν 15 minutes e. This is called beta decay since the electron is also called a β particle. Don t worry about the antineutrino for now. If you think an electron is hard to see you should try to see an antineutrino! But more of this at another time. Mixed with enough protons, the neutron becomes stable, but in nuclei with excess neutrons the neutrons tend to decay by beta decay. These counteracting tendencies (too few neutrons and the nucleus falls apart by electrical repulsion, too many neutrons and the nucleus decays by beta decay) give rise to the stability chart for nuclei, which looks something like this:
4 But this chart only goes out to about Z = 83. Why is that? Basically this happens for the following reason. As the nucleus gets larger and larger, the attractive force on a proton due to the nearby protons and neutrons stays pretty much the same: However, the repulsive electrical force acts over large distances, so adding any more protons, even on the other side of the nucleus, increases the force pushing the proton out of the nucleus while not increasing the attractive forces that hold it in. So the process of adding protons and then compensating with additional neutrons runs out of steam around Z = 83, which corresponds to Bi. Actually, heavier nuclei, such as uranium, exist, but are unstable U lasts about 4 billion years, which is longer than the age of the earth, so uranium is found on earth. Heavier elements have shorter lifetimes, and don t last long enough to exist in nature. A useful model (we will use it later) for describing the nucleus is the so-called liquiddrop model. At the surface of the nucleus the nucleons (neutrons and protons) are mostly attracted inward by the strong forces of the neighboring particles, like the molecules of H 2 O at the surface of a drop of water are attracted by the intermolecular forces of the surrounding H 2 O molecules. As discussed below, Bohr used this model to explain nuclear fission, the splitting of a nucleus into two smaller nuclei.
5 3. Radioactivity Nuclei can break up in several ways, reflecting the forces and processes discussed above. Typically, the breakup occurs with the emission of one or more particles, called α particles, β particles, and γ rays. β particles we have already seen: they are negatively charged (or sometimes positively charged) electrons. α particles are helium nuclei. For reasons that don t concern us here, it turns out that two protons and two neutrons form a particularly stable group called an α particle. Of course, it is also a 4 2 He nucleus. γ rays are particles of light. They are very energetic particles of light, but they are electromagnetic waves, or rays, nevertheless. These three types of emitted particles (α, β, and γ ) have obvious differences, but can easily be distinguished by the way they are (or are not) deflected by a magnetic field. The various types of decay occur in different types of nuclei, as follows: Gamma decay occurs in nuclear isomers that have too much energy, for example: C C+ γ. 12 * 12 Alpha decay occurs in nuclei that have too many protons. The protons repel one another, and the result is that an α particle is thrown off, for example: U Th+ α Since four nucleons are thrown off the mass number decreases by four to 234. Since two protons are thrown off, the atomic number Z decreases by two to 90. But the change in Z means that the number of electrons around the nucleus must also decrease by two, so the chemical properties change and the atom becomes a new chemical element. In this example, the new element corresponding to 90 electrons is thorium. On the periodic table the atom jumps to the left two spaces:
6 Beta decay occurs when a neutron decays into a proton, an electron (a β particle), and an antineutrino. But this increases the number of protons in the nucleus (the atomic number Z ) by one, without changing the total number of nucleons (the mass number A stays the same). Thus, the atom jumps to the right one space on the periodic table. An important example is the beta decay of carbon 14, C N + e+ ν e This is the nuclear reaction that is used for carbon dating, and it works as follows: Nuclei that live, on average, a certain length of time τ don t all decay at the time τ. Instead, if we wait a length of time called the half-life τ 1, roughly half of all the atoms in our 2 sample will decay. If we wait another length of time τ 1, half the remaining nuclei will 2 decay. If we start out with N atoms, the number remaining will be
7 N N N N τ τ τ τ You get the picture. Since cosmic rays (mostly high-energy protons) constantly bombard the atmosphere, some C is formed. This C forms part (a very small part) of all living things, in a (more-or-less) fixed proportion to the ordinary carbon, 12 C. But every 5730 years ( τ 12 for C ) half the C disappears, so by measuring the ratio of C to C in an archeological sample it is possible to determine how many half-lives have passed since the sample died. 4. Nuclear fission For very large nuclei, another process is possible: the nucleus can split into two smaller nuclei. Generally, this happens only rarely and it doesn t always result in the same products. In the liquid drop model, the process of fission of uranium might look like this: When the nucleus begins to stretch, the repulsive forces exaggerate the stretch until the nucleus divides into two pieces. But the two pieces repel each other, so they fly apart with enormous energy. Compared with the energy you get when a molecule of chemical explosive comes apart, the energy here is millions of times greater. Ordinarily, when fission occurs spontaneously, the reaction products include one or more neutrons in addition to the two major pieces indicated above. This happens because smaller nuclei tend to have relatively fewer neutrons than larger ones, as indicated by the stability curve shown above. But the appearance of the free neutrons introduces a new twist because when a free neutron strikes a uranium nucleus, especially a U isotope, it causes the nucleus to fission almost instantaneously and to give off two or three more neutrons: n+ U Ba+ Kr+ n These two or three neutrons, in turn, cause two or three more uranium nuclei to fission and give off four, five, or up to nine neutrons, which..., well you get the idea.
8 In a few millionths of a second we have neutrons all around causing nuclei to fission and give up lots and lots of energy. In a controlled process this is a nuclear reactor, but in an uncontrolled process it is an atomic bomb. With regard to Hahn and Meitner, the difficulty they had in discovering fission is the following. All the dogma, all the canon of the physics world, said that nuclei decompose by α, β, and γ decay, and jump around the periodic table in small steps. These small steps are like the moves in a Monopoly game. Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman, very reluctantly, discovered the go-to-jail card. The discovery was made more difficult by the fact that the barium that was formed is positioned above radium in the periodic table and looks chemically like radium. As shown by the radioactive decay chart, radium and other elements can be formed from uranium by successive α and β decays that seemed to them much more likely. In the end, it was virtually an act of courage to defy the known laws of physics and argue that fission had taken place.
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