Atomic nucleus

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A model of the atomic nucleus showing it as a compact bundle of the two types of nucleons: protons (red) and neutrons (blue). In this diagram, protons and neutrons look like little balls stuck together, but an actual nucleus (as understood by modern nuclear physics) cannot be explained like this, but only by using quantum mechanics. In a nucleus which occupies a certain energy level (for example, the ground state), each nucleon can be said to occupy a range of locations. Nucleus drawing.svg
A model of the atomic nucleus showing it as a compact bundle of the two types of nucleons: protons (red) and neutrons (blue). In this diagram, protons and neutrons look like little balls stuck together, but an actual nucleus (as understood by modern nuclear physics) cannot be explained like this, but only by using quantum mechanics. In a nucleus which occupies a certain energy level (for example, the ground state), each nucleon can be said to occupy a range of locations.

The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger–Marsden gold foil experiment. After the discovery of the neutron in 1932, models for a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons were quickly developed by Dmitri Ivanenko [1] and Werner Heisenberg. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] An atom is composed of a positively-charged nucleus, with a cloud of negatively-charged electrons surrounding it, bound together by electrostatic force. Almost all of the mass of an atom is located in the nucleus, with a very small contribution from the electron cloud. Protons and neutrons are bound together to form a nucleus by the nuclear force.

Contents

The diameter of the nucleus is in the range of 1.7566  fm (1.7566×10−15 m) for hydrogen (the diameter of a single proton) to about 11.7142  fm for uranium. [7] These dimensions are much smaller than the diameter of the atom itself (nucleus + electron cloud), by a factor of about 26,634 (uranium atomic radius is about 156  pm (156×10−12 m)) [8] to about 60,250 (hydrogen atomic radius is about 52.92  pm ). [lower-alpha 1]

The branch of physics concerned with the study and understanding of the atomic nucleus, including its composition and the forces which bind it together, is called nuclear physics.

Introduction

History

The nucleus was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's efforts to test Thomson's "plum pudding model" of the atom. [9] The electron had already been discovered by J.J. Thomson. Knowing that atoms are electrically neutral, J.J.Thomson postulated that there must be a positive charge as well. In his plum pudding model, Thomson suggested that an atom consisted of negative electrons randomly scattered within a sphere of positive charge. Ernest Rutherford later devised an experiment with his research partner Hans Geiger and with help of Ernest Marsden, that involved the deflection of alpha particles (helium nuclei) directed at a thin sheet of metal foil. He reasoned that if J.J Thomson's model were correct, the positively charged alpha particles would easily pass through the foil with very little deviation in their paths, as the foil should act as electrically neutral if the negative and positive charges are so intimately mixed as to make it appear neutral. To his surprise, many of the particles were deflected at very large angles. Because the mass of an alpha particle is about 8000 times that of an electron, it became apparent that a very strong force must be present if it could deflect the massive and fast moving alpha particles. He realized that the plum pudding model could not be accurate and that the deflections of the alpha particles could only be explained if the positive and negative charges were separated from each other and that the mass of the atom was a concentrated point of positive charge. This justified the idea of a nuclear atom with a dense center of positive charge and mass.

Etymology

The term nucleus is from the Latin word nucleus, a diminutive of nux ("nut"), meaning the kernel (i.e., the "small nut") inside a watery type of fruit (like a peach). In 1844, Michael Faraday used the term to refer to the "central point of an atom". The modern atomic meaning was proposed by Ernest Rutherford in 1912. [10] The adoption of the term "nucleus" to atomic theory, however, was not immediate. In 1916, for example, Gilbert N. Lewis stated, in his famous article The Atom and the Molecule, that "the atom is composed of the kernel and an outer atom or shell" [11]

Nuclear makeup

A figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom with the electron cloud in shades of gray. In the nucleus, the two protons and two neutrons are depicted in red and blue. This depiction shows the particles as separate, whereas in an actual helium atom, the protons are superimposed in space and most likely found at the very center of the nucleus, and the same is true of the two neutrons. Thus, all four particles are most likely found in exactly the same space, at the central point. Classical images of separate particles fail to model known charge distributions in very small nuclei. A more accurate image is that the spatial distribution of nucleons in a helium nucleus is much closer to the helium electron cloud shown here, although on a far smaller scale, than to the fanciful nucleus image. Helium atom QM.svg
A figurative depiction of the helium-4 atom with the electron cloud in shades of gray. In the nucleus, the two protons and two neutrons are depicted in red and blue. This depiction shows the particles as separate, whereas in an actual helium atom, the protons are superimposed in space and most likely found at the very center of the nucleus, and the same is true of the two neutrons. Thus, all four particles are most likely found in exactly the same space, at the central point. Classical images of separate particles fail to model known charge distributions in very small nuclei. A more accurate image is that the spatial distribution of nucleons in a helium nucleus is much closer to the helium electron cloud shown here, although on a far smaller scale, than to the fanciful nucleus image.

The nucleus of an atom consists of neutrons and protons, which in turn are the manifestation of more elementary particles, called quarks, that are held in association by the nuclear strong force in certain stable combinations of hadrons, called baryons. The nuclear strong force extends far enough from each baryon so as to bind the neutrons and protons together against the repulsive electrical force between the positively charged protons. The nuclear strong force has a very short range, and essentially drops to zero just beyond the edge of the nucleus. The collective action of the positively charged nucleus is to hold the electrically negative charged electrons in their orbits about the nucleus. The collection of negatively charged electrons orbiting the nucleus display an affinity for certain configurations and numbers of electrons that make their orbits stable. Which chemical element an atom represents is determined by the number of protons in the nucleus; the neutral atom will have an equal number of electrons orbiting that nucleus. Individual chemical elements can create more stable electron configurations by combining to share their electrons. It is that sharing of electrons to create stable electronic orbits about the nucleus that appears to us as the chemistry of our macro world.

Protons define the entire charge of a nucleus, and hence its chemical identity. Neutrons are electrically neutral, but contribute to the mass of a nucleus to nearly the same extent as the protons. Neutrons can explain the phenomenon of isotopes (same atomic number with different atomic mass). The main role of neutrons is to reduce electrostatic repulsion inside the nucleus.

Composition and shape

Protons and neutrons are fermions, with different values of the strong isospin quantum number, so two protons and two neutrons can share the same space wave function since they are not identical quantum entities. They are sometimes viewed as two different quantum states of the same particle, the nucleon . [12] [13] Two fermions, such as two protons, or two neutrons, or a proton + neutron (the deuteron) can exhibit bosonic behavior when they become loosely bound in pairs, which have integer spin.

In the rare case of a hypernucleus, a third baryon called a hyperon, containing one or more strange quarks and/or other unusual quark(s), can also share the wave function. However, this type of nucleus is extremely unstable and not found on Earth except in high energy physics experiments.

The neutron has a positively charged core of radius ≈ 0.3 fm surrounded by a compensating negative charge of radius between 0.3 fm and 2 fm. The proton has an approximately exponentially decaying positive charge distribution with a mean square radius of about 0.8 fm. [14]

Nuclei can be spherical, rugby ball-shaped (prolate deformation), discus-shaped (oblate deformation), triaxial (a combination of oblate and prolate deformation) or pear-shaped. [15] [16]

Forces

Nuclei are bound together by the residual strong force (nuclear force). The residual strong force is a minor residuum of the strong interaction which binds quarks together to form protons and neutrons. This force is much weaker between neutrons and protons because it is mostly neutralized within them, in the same way that electromagnetic forces between neutral atoms (such as van der Waals forces that act between two inert gas atoms) are much weaker than the electromagnetic forces that hold the parts of the atoms together internally (for example, the forces that hold the electrons in an inert gas atom bound to its nucleus).

The nuclear force is highly attractive at the distance of typical nucleon separation, and this overwhelms the repulsion between protons due to the electromagnetic force, thus allowing nuclei to exist. However, the residual strong force has a limited range because it decays quickly with distance (see Yukawa potential); thus only nuclei smaller than a certain size can be completely stable. The largest known completely stable nucleus (i.e. stable to alpha, beta, and gamma decay) islead-208 which contains a total of 208 nucleons (126 neutrons and 82 protons). Nuclei larger than this maximum are unstable and tend to be increasingly short-lived with larger numbers of nucleons. However, bismuth-209 is also stable to beta decay and has the longest half-life to alpha decay of any known isotope, estimated at a billion times longer than the age of the universe.

The residual strong force is effective over a very short range (usually only a few femtometres (fm); roughly one or two nucleon diameters) and causes an attraction between any pair of nucleons. For example, between protons and neutrons to form [NP] deuteron, and also between protons and protons, and neutrons and neutrons.

Halo nuclei and nuclear force range limits

The effective absolute limit of the range of the nuclear force (also known as residual strong force) is represented by halo nuclei such as lithium-11 or boron-14, in which dineutrons, or other collections of neutrons, orbit at distances of about 10 fm (roughly similar to the 8 fm radius of the nucleus of uranium-238). These nuclei are not maximally dense. Halo nuclei form at the extreme edges of the chart of the nuclides—the neutron drip line and proton drip line—and are all unstable with short half-lives, measured in milliseconds; for example, lithium-11 has a half-life of 8.8 ms.

Halos in effect represent an excited state with nucleons in an outer quantum shell which has unfilled energy levels "below" it (both in terms of radius and energy). The halo may be made of either neutrons [NN, NNN] or protons [PP, PPP]. Nuclei which have a single neutron halo include 11Be and 19C. A two-neutron halo is exhibited by 6He, 11Li, 17B, 19B and 22C. Two-neutron halo nuclei break into three fragments, never two, and are called Borromean nuclei because of this behavior (referring to a system of three interlocked rings in which breaking any ring frees both of the others). 8He and 14Be both exhibit a four-neutron halo. Nuclei which have a proton halo include 8B and 26P. A two-proton halo is exhibited by 17Ne and 27S. Proton halos are expected to be more rare and unstable than the neutron examples, because of the repulsive electromagnetic forces of the excess proton(s).

Nuclear models

Although the standard model of physics is widely believed to completely describe the composition and behavior of the nucleus, generating predictions from theory is much more difficult than for most other areas of particle physics. This is due to two reasons:

Historically, experiments have been compared to relatively crude models that are necessarily imperfect. None of these models can completely explain experimental data on nuclear structure. [18]

The nuclear radius (R) is considered to be one of the basic quantities that any model must predict. For stable nuclei (not halo nuclei or other unstable distorted nuclei) the nuclear radius is roughly proportional to the cube root of the mass number (A) of the nucleus, and particularly in nuclei containing many nucleons, as they arrange in more spherical configurations:

The stable nucleus has approximately a constant density and therefore the nuclear radius R can be approximated by the following formula,

where A = Atomic mass number (the number of protons Z, plus the number of neutrons N) and r0 = 1.25 fm = 1.25 × 10−15 m. In this equation, the "constant" r0 varies by 0.2 fm, depending on the nucleus in question, but this is less than 20% change from a constant. [19]

In other words, packing protons and neutrons in the nucleus gives approximately the same total size result as packing hard spheres of a constant size (like marbles) into a tight spherical or almost spherical bag (some stable nuclei are not quite spherical, but are known to be prolate). [20]

Models of nuclear structure include :

Liquid drop model

Early models of the nucleus viewed the nucleus as a rotating liquid drop. In this model, the trade-off of long-range electromagnetic forces and relatively short-range nuclear forces, together cause behavior which resembled surface tension forces in liquid drops of different sizes. This formula is successful at explaining many important phenomena of nuclei, such as their changing amounts of binding energy as their size and composition changes (see semi-empirical mass formula), but it does not explain the special stability which occurs when nuclei have special "magic numbers" of protons or neutrons.

The terms in the semi-empirical mass formula, which can be used to approximate the binding energy of many nuclei, are considered as the sum of five types of energies (see below). Then the picture of a nucleus as a drop of incompressible liquid roughly accounts for the observed variation of binding energy of the nucleus:

Liquid drop model.svg

Volume energy. When an assembly of nucleons of the same size is packed together into the smallest volume, each interior nucleon has a certain number of other nucleons in contact with it. So, this nuclear energy is proportional to the volume.

Surface energy. A nucleon at the surface of a nucleus interacts with fewer other nucleons than one in the interior of the nucleus and hence its binding energy is less. This surface energy term takes that into account and is therefore negative and is proportional to the surface area.

Coulomb Energy. The electric repulsion between each pair of protons in a nucleus contributes toward decreasing its binding energy.

Asymmetry energy (also called Pauli Energy). An energy associated with the Pauli exclusion principle. Were it not for the Coulomb energy, the most stable form of nuclear matter would have the same number of neutrons as protons, since unequal numbers of neutrons and protons imply filling higher energy levels for one type of particle, while leaving lower energy levels vacant for the other type.

Pairing energy. An energy which is a correction term that arises from the tendency of proton pairs and neutron pairs to occur. An even number of particles is more stable than an odd number.

Shell models and other quantum models

A number of models for the nucleus have also been proposed in which nucleons occupy orbitals, much like the atomic orbitals in atomic physics theory. These wave models imagine nucleons to be either sizeless point particles in potential wells, or else probability waves as in the "optical model", frictionlessly orbiting at high speed in potential wells.

In the above models, the nucleons may occupy orbitals in pairs, due to being fermions, which allows explanation of even/odd Z and N effects well-known from experiments. The exact nature and capacity of nuclear shells differs from those of electrons in atomic orbitals, primarily because the potential well in which the nucleons move (especially in larger nuclei) is quite different from the central electromagnetic potential well which binds electrons in atoms. Some resemblance to atomic orbital models may be seen in a small atomic nucleus like that of helium-4, in which the two protons and two neutrons separately occupy 1s orbitals analogous to the 1s orbital for the two electrons in the helium atom, and achieve unusual stability for the same reason. Nuclei with 5 nucleons are all extremely unstable and short-lived, yet, helium-3, with 3 nucleons, is very stable even with lack of a closed 1s orbital shell. Another nucleus with 3 nucleons, the triton hydrogen-3 is unstable and will decay into helium-3 when isolated. Weak nuclear stability with 2 nucleons {NP} in the 1s orbital is found in the deuteron hydrogen-2, with only one nucleon in each of the proton and neutron potential wells. While each nucleon is a fermion, the {NP} deuteron is a boson and thus does not follow Pauli Exclusion for close packing within shells. Lithium-6 with 6 nucleons is highly stable without a closed second 1p shell orbital. For light nuclei with total nucleon numbers 1 to 6 only those with 5 do not show some evidence of stability. Observations of beta-stability of light nuclei outside closed shells indicate that nuclear stability is much more complex than simple closure of shell orbitals with magic numbers of protons and neutrons.

For larger nuclei, the shells occupied by nucleons begin to differ significantly from electron shells, but nevertheless, present nuclear theory does predict the magic numbers of filled nuclear shells for both protons and neutrons. The closure of the stable shells predicts unusually stable configurations, analogous to the noble group of nearly-inert gases in chemistry. An example is the stability of the closed shell of 50 protons, which allows tin to have 10 stable isotopes, more than any other element. Similarly, the distance from shell-closure explains the unusual instability of isotopes which have far from stable numbers of these particles, such as the radioactive elements 43 (technetium) and 61 (promethium), each of which is preceded and followed by 17 or more stable elements.

There are however problems with the shell model when an attempt is made to account for nuclear properties well away from closed shells. This has led to complex post hoc distortions of the shape of the potential well to fit experimental data, but the question remains whether these mathematical manipulations actually correspond to the spatial deformations in real nuclei. Problems with the shell model have led some to propose realistic two-body and three-body nuclear force effects involving nucleon clusters and then build the nucleus on this basis. Three such cluster models are the 1936 Resonating Group Structure model of John Wheeler, Close-Packed Spheron Model of Linus Pauling and the 2D Ising Model of MacGregor. [18]

Consistency between models

As with the case of superfluid liquid helium, atomic nuclei are an example of a state in which both (1) "ordinary" particle physical rules for volume and (2) non-intuitive quantum mechanical rules for a wave-like nature apply. In superfluid helium, the helium atoms have volume, and essentially "touch" each other, yet at the same time exhibit strange bulk properties, consistent with a Bose–Einstein condensation. The nucleons in atomic nuclei also exhibit a wave-like nature and lack standard fluid properties, such as friction. For nuclei made of hadrons which are fermions, Bose-Einstein condensation does not occur, yet nevertheless, many nuclear properties can only be explained similarly by a combination of properties of particles with volume, in addition to the frictionless motion characteristic of the wave-like behavior of objects trapped in Erwin Schrödinger's quantum orbitals.

See also

Notes

  1. 26,634 derives from 2 x 156 pm / 11.7142 fm; 60,250 derives from 2 x 52.92 pm / 1.7166 fm

Related Research Articles

Atom smallest unit of a chemical element

An atom is the smallest unit of ordinary matter that forms a chemical element. Every solid, liquid, gas, and plasma is composed of neutral or ionized atoms. Atoms are extremely small, typically around 100 picometers across. They are so small that accurately predicting their behavior using classical physics—as if they were tennis balls, for example—is not possible due to quantum effects.

Alpha decay Emission of alpha particles by a decaying radioactive atom

Alpha decay or α-decay is a type of radioactive decay in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle and thereby transforms or 'decays' into a different atomic nucleus, with a mass number that is reduced by four and an atomic number that is reduced by two. An alpha particle is identical to the nucleus of a helium-4 atom, which consists of two protons and two neutrons. It has a charge of +2 e and a mass of 4 u. For example, uranium-238 decays to form thorium-234. Alpha particles have a charge +2 e, but as a nuclear equation describes a nuclear reaction without considering the electrons – a convention that does not imply that the nuclei necessarily occur in neutral atoms – the charge is not usually shown. Alpha decay typically occurs in the heaviest nuclides. Theoretically, it can occur only in nuclei somewhat heavier than nickel, where the overall binding energy per nucleon is no longer a maximum and the nuclides are therefore unstable toward spontaneous fission-type processes. In practice, this mode of decay has only been observed in nuclides considerably heavier than nickel, with the lightest known alpha emitters being the lightest isotopes of tellurium. Exceptionally, however, beryllium-8 decays to two alpha particles. Alpha decay is by far the most common form of cluster decay, where the parent atom ejects a defined daughter collection of nucleons, leaving another defined product behind. It is the most common form because of the combined extremely high nuclear binding energy and a relatively small mass of the alpha particle. Like other cluster decays, alpha decay is fundamentally a quantum tunneling process. Unlike beta decay, it is governed by the interplay between both the nuclear force and the electromagnetic force. Alpha particles have a typical kinetic energy of 5 MeV and have a speed of about 15,000,000 m/s, or 5% of the speed of light. There is surprisingly small variation around this energy, due to the heavy dependence of the half-life of this process on the energy produced. Because of their relatively large mass, the electric charge of +2 e and relatively low velocity, alpha particles are very likely to interact with other atoms and lose their energy, and their forward motion can be stopped by a few centimeters of air. Approximately 99% of the helium produced on Earth is the result of the alpha decay of underground deposits of minerals containing uranium or thorium. The helium is brought to the surface as a by-product of natural gas production.

Beta decay Type of radioactive decay

In nuclear physics, beta decay (β-decay) is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle is emitted from an atomic nucleus, transforming the original nuclide to an isobar of that nuclide. For example, beta decay of a neutron transforms it into a proton by the emission of an electron accompanied by an antineutrino; or, conversely a proton is converted into a neutron by the emission of a positron with a neutrino in so-called positron emission. Neither the beta particle nor its associated (anti-)neutrino exist within the nucleus prior to beta decay, but are created in the decay process. By this process, unstable atoms obtain a more stable ratio of protons to neutrons. The probability of a nuclide decaying due to beta and other forms of decay is determined by its nuclear binding energy. The binding energies of all existing nuclides form what is called the nuclear band or valley of stability. For either electron or positron emission to be energetically possible, the energy release or Q value must be positive.

Neutron Subatomic particle with no electric charge

The neutron is a subatomic particle, symbol
n
or
n0
, which has a neutral charge, and a mass slightly greater than that of a proton. Protons and neutrons constitute the nuclei of atoms. Since protons and neutrons behave similarly within the nucleus, and each has a mass of approximately one atomic mass unit, they are both referred to as nucleons. Their properties and interactions are described by nuclear physics.

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

Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies atomic nuclei and their constituents and interactions. Other forms of nuclear matter are also studied.

Nuclear fusion Process naturally occurring in stars where atomic nucleons combine

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atoms are combined to form one or more atomic nuclei and subatomic particles. The weight difference between the reactants and the products is seen as the release or absorption of energy. This difference in weight is due to the difference in the binding force of the atom between the nuclei before and after the reaction. Fusion is a process that empowers a series of active or primary stars and other higher stars, in which greater energy is released.

Nucleon

In chemistry and physics, a nucleon is either a proton or a neutron, considered in its role as a component of an atomic nucleus. The number of nucleons in a nucleus defines an isotope's mass number.

Proton Nucleon (constituent of the nucleus of the atom) that has positive electric charge; symbol p or p+

A proton is a subatomic particle, symbol
p
or
p+
, with a positive electric charge of +1e elementary charge and a mass slightly less than that of a neutron. Protons and neutrons, each with masses of approximately one atomic mass unit, are collectively referred to as "nucleons".

Strong interaction Force binding particles within the atomic nucleus

In nuclear physics and particle physics, the strong interaction is the mechanism responsible for the strong nuclear force, and is one of the four known fundamental interactions, with the others being electromagnetism, the weak interaction, and gravitation. At the range of 10−15 m (1 femtometer), the strong force is approximately 137 times as strong as electromagnetism, a million times as strong as the weak interaction, and 1038 times as strong as gravitation. The strong nuclear force holds most ordinary matter together because it confines quarks into hadron particles such as the proton and neutron. In addition, the strong force binds these neutrons and protons to create atomic nuclei. Most of the mass of a common proton or neutron is the result of the strong force field energy; the individual quarks provide only about 1% of the mass of a proton.

Subatomic particle Particle whose size or mass is less than that of the atom, or of which the atom is composed; small quantum particle

In physical sciences, subatomic particles are smaller than atoms. They can be composite particles, such as the neutron and proton; or elementary particles, which according to the standard model are not made of other particles. Particle physics and nuclear physics study these particles and how they interact. The concept of a subatomic particle was refined when experiments showed that light could behave like a stream of particles as well as exhibiting wave-like properties. This led to the concept of wave–particle duality to reflect that quantum-scale particles behave like both particles and waves. Another concept, the uncertainty principle, states that some of their properties taken together, such as their simultaneous position and momentum, cannot be measured exactly. The wave–particle duality has been shown to apply not only to photons but to more massive particles as well.

Nuclear reaction Process in which two nuclei collide to produce one or more nuclides

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, a nuclear reaction is semantically considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or a nucleus and an external subatomic particle, collide to produce one or more new nuclides. Thus, a nuclear reaction must cause a transformation of at least one nuclide to another. If a nucleus interacts with another nucleus or particle and they then separate without changing the nature of any nuclide, the process is simply referred to as a type of nuclear scattering, rather than a nuclear reaction.

Magic number (physics) Number of protons or neutrons that make a nucleus particularly stable

In nuclear physics, a magic number is a number of nucleons such that they are arranged into complete shells within the atomic nucleus. As a result, atomic nuclei with a 'magic' number of protons or neutrons are much more stable than other nuclei. The seven most widely recognized magic numbers as of 2019 are 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. For protons, this corresponds to the elements helium, oxygen, calcium, nickel, tin, lead and the hypothetical unbihexium, although 126 is so far only known to be a magic number for neutrons. Atomic nuclei consisting of such a magic number of nucleons have a higher average binding energy per nucleon than one would expect based upon predictions such as the semi-empirical mass formula and are hence more stable against nuclear decay.

Helium-4

Helium-4 is a stable isotope of the element helium. It is by far the more abundant of the two naturally occurring isotopes of helium, making up about 99.99986% of the helium on Earth. Its nucleus is identical to an alpha particle, and consists of two protons and two neutrons.

Nuclear force A force that acts between the protons and neutrons of atoms

The nuclear force is a force that acts between the protons and neutrons of atoms. Neutrons and protons, both nucleons, are affected by the nuclear force almost identically. Since protons have charge +1 e, they experience an electric force that tends to push them apart, but at short range the attractive nuclear force is strong enough to overcome the electromagnetic force. The nuclear force binds nucleons into atomic nuclei.

Although there are nine known isotopes of helium (2He), only helium-3 and helium-4 are stable. All radioisotopes are short-lived, the longest-lived being 6
He
with a half-life of 806.7 milliseconds. The least stable is 5
He
, with a half-life of 7.6×10−22 s, although it is possible that 2
He
has an even shorter half-life.

Nuclear binding energy Minimum energy that would be required to disassemble the nucleus of an atom into its component parts

Nuclear binding energy is the minimum energy that would be required to disassemble the nucleus of an atom into its component parts. These component parts are neutrons and protons, which are collectively called nucleons. The binding energy is always a positive number, as we need to spend energy in moving these nucleons, attracted to each other by the strong nuclear force, away from each other. The mass of an atomic nucleus is less than the sum of the individual masses of the free constituent protons and neutrons, according to Einstein's equation E=mc2. This 'missing mass' is known as the mass defect, and represents the energy that was released when the nucleus was formed.

Nuclear structure The structure of the atomic nucleus

Understanding the structure of the atomic nucleus is one of the central challenges in nuclear physics.

Valley of stability

In nuclear physics, the valley of stability is a characterization of the stability of nuclides to radioactivity based on their binding energy. Nuclides are composed of protons and neutrons. The shape of the valley refers to the profile of binding energy as a function of the numbers of neutrons and protons, with the lowest part of the valley corresponding to the region of most stable nuclei. The line of stable nuclides down the center of the valley of stability is known as the line of beta stability. The sides of the valley correspond to increasing instability to beta decay. The decay of a nuclide becomes more energetically favorable the further it is from the line of beta stability. The boundaries of the valley correspond to the nuclear drip lines, where nuclides become so unstable they emit single protons or single neutrons. Regions of instability within the valley at high atomic number also include radioactive decay by alpha radiation or spontaneous fission. The shape of the valley is roughly an elongated paraboloid corresponding to the nuclide binding energies as a function of neutron and atomic numbers.

History of subatomic physics

The idea that matter consists of smaller particles and that there exists a limited number of sorts of primary, smallest particles in nature has existed in natural philosophy at least since the 6th century BC. Such ideas gained physical credibility beginning in the 19th century, but the concept of "elementary particle" underwent some changes in its meaning: notably, modern physics no longer deems elementary particles indestructible. Even elementary particles can decay or collide destructively; they can cease to exist and create (other) particles in result.

Discovery of the neutron Scientific background leading to the discovery of subatomic particles

The discovery of the neutron and its properties was central to the extraordinary developments in atomic physics in the first half of the 20th century. Early in the century, Ernest Rutherford developed a crude model of the atom, based on the gold foil experiment of Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. In this model, atoms had their mass and positive electric charge concentrated in a very small nucleus. By 1920 chemical isotopes had been discovered, the atomic masses had been determined to be (approximately) integer multiples of the mass of the hydrogen atom, and the atomic number had been identified as the charge on the nucleus. Throughout the 1920s, the nucleus was viewed as composed of combinations of protons and electrons, the two elementary particles known at the time, but that model presented several experimental and theoretical contradictions.

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