ABC's of Nuclear Science

Nuclear Structure | Radioactivity | Alpha Decay | Beta Decay |Gamma Decay | Half-Life | Reactions | Fusion | Fission | Cosmic Rays | Antimatter

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Nuclear Structure


     An atom consists of an extremely small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. Although typically the nucleus is less than one ten-thousandth the size of the atom, the nucleus contains more than 99.9% of the mass of the atom! Nuclei consist of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons held together by the so-called strong or nuclear force. This force is much stronger than the familiar electrostatic force that binds the electrons to the nucleus, but its range is limited to distances on the order of a few x10-15 meters.
     The number of protons in the nucleus, Z, is called the atomic number. This determines what chemical element the atom is. The number of neutrons in the nucleus is denoted by N. The atomic mass of the nucleus, A, is equal to Z + N. A given element can have many different isotopes, which differ from one another by the number of neutrons contained in the nuclei. In a neutral atom, the number of electrons orbiting the nucleus equals the number of protons in the nucleus. Since the electric charges of the proton and the electron are +1 and -1 respectively (in units of the proton charge), the net charge of the atom is zero. At present, there are 112 known elements which range from the lightest, hydrogen, to the recently discovered and yet to-be-named element 112. All of the elements heavier than uranium are man made. Among the elements are approximately 270 stable isotopes, and more than 2000 unstable isotopes.


     In 1896, Henri Becquerel was working with compounds containing the element uranium. To his surprise, he found that photographic plates covered to keep out light became fogged, or partially exposed, when these uranium compounds were anywhere near the plates. This fogging suggested that some kind of ray had passed through the plate coverings. Several materials other than uranium were also found to emit these penetrating rays. Materials that emit this kind of radiation are said to be radioactive and to undergo radioactive decay.
     In 1899, Ernest Rutherford discovered that uranium compounds produce three different kinds of radiation. He separated the radiations according to their penetrating abilities and named them a alpha, b beta, and g gamma radiation, after the first three letters of the Greek alphabet. The a radiation can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Rutherford later showed that an alpha particle is the nucleus of a He atom, 4He. Beta particles were later identified as high speed electrons. Six millimeters of aluminum are needed to stop most b particles. Several millimeters of lead are needed to stop g rays , which proved to be high energy photons. Alpha particles and g rays are emitted with a specific energy that depends on the radioactive isotope. Beta particles, however, are emitted with a continuous range of energies from zero up to the maximum allowed for by the particular isotope.

α decay

     The emission of an a particle, or 4He nucleus, is a process called a decay. Since a particles contain protons and neutrons, they must come from the nucleus of an atom. The nucleus that results from a decay will have a mass and charge different from those of the original nucleus. A change in nuclear charge means that the element has been changed into a different element. Only through such radioactive decays or nuclear reactions can transmutation, the age-old dream of the alchemists, actually occur. The mass number, A, of an a particle is four, so the mass number, A, of the decaying nucleus is reduced by four. The atomic number, Z, of 4He is two, and therefore the atomic number of the nucleus, the number of protons, is reduced by two. This can be written as an equation analogous to a chemical reaction. For example, for the decay of an isotope of the element seaborgium, 263Sg:

263Sg ----> 259Rf + 4He

The atomic number of the nucleus changes from 106 to 104, giving rutherfordium an atomic mass of 263-4=259. a decay typically occurs in heavy nuclei where the electrostatic repulsion between the protons in the nucleus is large. Energy is released in the process of a decay. Careful measurements show that the sum of the masses of the daughter nucleus and the a particle is a bit less than the mass of the parent isotope. Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, which says that mass is proportional to energy, explains this fact by saying that the mass that is lost in such decay is converted into the kinetic energy carried away by the decay products.

β Decay

     Beta particles are negatively charged electrons emitted by the nucleus. Since the mass of an electron is a tiny fraction of an atomic mass unit, the mass of a nucleus that undergoes b decay is changed by only a tiny amount. The mass number is unchanged. The nucleus contains no electrons. Rather, b decay occurs when a neutron is changed into a proton within the nucleus. An unseen neutrino,, accompanies each b decay. The number of protons, and thus the atomic number, is increased by one. For example, the isotope 14C is unstable and emits a β particle, becoming the stable isotope 14N: 

14C ----> 14N + e- +

     In a stable nucleus, the neutron does not decay. A free neutron, or one bound in a nucleus that has an excess of neutrons, can decay by emitting a b particle. Sharing the energy with the b particle is a neutrino. The neutrino has little or no mass and is uncharged, but, like the photon, it carries momentum and energy. The source of the energy released in b decay is explained by the fact that the mass of the parent isotope is larger than the sum of the masses of the decay products. Mass is converted into energy just as Einstein predicted.

γ Decay

     Gamma rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation that results from a redistribution of electric charge within a nucleus. A g ray is a high energy photon. The only thing which distinguishes a g ray from the visible photons emitted by a light bulb is its wavelength; the g ray's wavelength is much shorter. For complex nuclei there are many different possible ways in which the neutrons and protons can be arranged within the nucleus. Gamma rays can be emitted when a nucleus undergoes a transition from one such configuration to another. For example, this can occur when the shape of the nucleus undergoes a change. Neither the mass number nor the atomic number is changed when a nucleus emits a g ray in the reaction

 152Dy* ----> 152Dy + γ


     The time required for half of the atoms in any given quantity of a radioactive isotope to decay is the half-life of that isotope. Each particular isotope has its own half-life. For example, the half-life of 238U is 4.5 billion years. That is, in 4.5 billion years, half of the 238U on Earth will have decayed into other elements. In another 4.5 billion years, half of the remaining 238U will have decayed. One fourth of the original material will remain on Earth after 9 billion years. The half-life of 14C is 5730 years, thus it is useful for dating archaeological material. Nuclear half-lives range from tiny fractions of a second to many, many times the age of the universe.

For more information on half-life and isotopes, please refer to the Isotopes Project at LBNL where you can also find the Table of Isotopes online.


     If nuclei come close enough together, they can interact with one another through the strong nuclear force, and reactions between the nuclei can occur. As in chemical reactions, nuclear reactions can either be exothermic (i.e. release energy) or endothermic (i.e. require energy input). Two major classes of nuclear reactions are of importance: fusion and fission.


     Fusion is a nuclear process in which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus. An example of a fusion reaction important in thermonuclear weapons and in future nuclear reactors is the reaction between two different hydrogen isotopes to form an isotope of helium:

  2H + 3H ----> 4He + n

     This reaction liberates an amount of energy more than a million times greater than one gets from a typical chemical reaction. Such a large amount of energy is released in fusion reactions because when two light nuclei fuse, the sum of the masses of the product nuclei is less than the sum of the masses of the initial fusing nuclei. Once again, Einstein's equation, E=mc2, explains that the mass that is lost it converted into energy carried away by the fusion products.
     Even though fusion n is an energetically favorable reaction for light nuclei, it does not occur under standard conditions here on Earth because of the large energy investment that is required. Because the reacting nuclei are both positively charged, there is a large electrostatic repulsion between them as they come together. Only when they are squeezed very close to one another do they feel the strong nuclear force, which can overcome the electrostatic repulsion and cause them to fuse.
     Fusion reactions have been going on for billions of years in our universe. In fact, nuclear fusion reactions are responsible for the energy output of most stars, including our own Sun. Scientists on Earth have been able to produce fusion reactions for only about the last sixty years. At first, there were small scale studies in which only a few fusion reactions actually occurred. However, these first experiments later lead to the development of thermonuclear fusion weapons (hydrogen bombs).
     Fusion is the process that takes place in stars like our Sun. Whenever we feel the warmth of the Sun and see by its light, we are observing the products of fusion. We know that all life on Earth exists because the light generated by the Sun produces food and warms our planet. Therefore, we can say that fusion is the basis for our life.

     When a star is formed, it initially consists of hydrogen and helium created in the Big Bang, the process that created our universe. Hydrogen isotopes collide in a star and fuse forming a helium nucleus. Later, the helium nuclei collide and form heavier elements. Fusion is a nuclear reaction in which nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus. It is the basic reaction which drives the Sun. Lighter elements fuse and form heavier elements. These reactions continue until the nuclei reach iron (around mass sixty), the nucleus with the most binding energy. When a nucleus reaches mass sixty, no more fusion occurs in a star because it is energetically unfavorable to produce higher masses. Once a star has converted a large fraction of its core's mass to iron, it has almost reached the end of its life.

     The fusion chain cannot continue so its fuel is reduced. Some stars keep shrinking until they become a cooling ember made up of iron. However, if a star is sufficiently massive, a tremendous, violent, brilliant explosion can happen. A star will suddenly expand and produce, in a very short time, more energy than our Sun will produce in a lifetime. When this happens, we say that a star has become a supernova.

     While a star is in the supernova phase, many important reactions occur. The nuclei are accelerated to much higher velocities than can occur in a fusing star. With the added energy caused by their speed, nuclei can fuse and produce elements higher in mass than iron. The extra energy in the explosion is necessary to over come the energy barrier of a higher mass element. Elements such as lead, gold, and silver found on Earth were once the debris of a supernova explosion. The element iron that we find all through the Earth and in its center is directly derived from both super novae and dead stars.

More peaceful uses of fusion are being researched today with the hope that soon we will be able to control fusion reactions to generate clean, inexpensive power.


     Fission is a nuclear process in which a heavy nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei. An example of a fission reaction that was used in the first atomic bomb and is still used in nuclear reactors is

235U + n ----> 134Xe + 100Sr + 2n

     The products shown in the above equation are only one set of many possible product nuclei. Fission reactions can produce any combination of lighter nuclei so long as the number of protons and neutrons in the products sum up to those in the initial fissioning nucleus. As with fusion, a great amount of energy can be released in fission because for heavy nuclei, the summed masses of the lighter product nuclei is less than the mass of the fissioning nucleus.
     Fission occurs because of the electrostatic repulsion created by the large number of positively charged protons contained in a heavy nucleus. Two smaller nuclei have less internal electrostatic repulsion than one larger nucleus. So, once the larger nucleus can overcome the strong nuclear force which holds it together, it can fission. Fission can be seen as a "tug-of-war" between the strong attractive nuclear force and the repulsive electrostatic force. In fission reactions, electrostatic repulsion wins.
     Fission is a process that has been occurring in the universe for billions of years. As mentioned above, we have not only used fission to produce energy for nuclear bombs, but we also use fission peacefully everyday to produce energy in nuclear power plants. Interestingly, although the first man-made nuclear reactor was produced only about fifty years ago, the Earth operated a natural fission reactor in a uranium deposit in West Africa about two billion years ago!

Cosmic Rays

     High energy electrons, protons, and complex nuclei can be produced in a number of astronomical environments. Such particles travel throughout the universe and are called cosmic rays. Some of these particles reach our Earth. As these objects hit our atmosphere, other particles called pions and muons are produced. These particles then slow down or crash into other atoms in the atmosphere. Since the atmosphere slows down these particles, the higher we travel, the more cosmic radiation we see. When you visit the mountains or take an airplane ride, you will encounter more cosmic radiation than if you stayed at sea level.
     Most cosmic radiation is very energetic. It can easily pass through an inch of lead. Since cosmic radiation can cause genetic changes, some scientists believe that this radiation has been important in driving the evolution of life on our planet. While cosmic radiation can cause some damage to individuals, it also has played an important role in creating humans. Our atmosphere is naturally shielding us from harmful effects. However, if we were to leave the earth and travel to some planet, we could be subjected to very high levels of radiation. Future space travelers will have to find some way to minimize exposure to cosmic rays.

To find out more information, please take a look at experiments (10-14).

Cosmic Ray Exercise

     Turn on the Geiger counter. Use the most sensitive scale. Make sure that no radioactive material is nearby. What do you hear? Every few seconds, you will hear some beeps from the counter. Some of these counts are caused by cosmic rays. Surround the counter by some concrete or iron. Do the counts go away? Take the Geiger counter to a mountain such as Mount Diablo or Mount Tamalpias. Can you measure an increase in rate? It might be necessary to make measurements for five to ten minutes or more to achieve sufficient statistical accuracy.

Nuclear Structure | Radioactivity | Alpha Decay | Beta Decay | Gamma Decay | Half-Life | Reactions | Fusion | Fission | Cosmic Rays | Antimatter

Last Updated 3/30/07