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31: Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics

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  • The exploration of radioactivity and the nucleus revealed fundamental and previously unknown particles, forces, and conservation laws. That exploration has evolved into a search for further underlying structures, such as quarks. In this chapter, the fundamentals of nuclear radioactivity and the nucleus are explored. The following two chapters explore the more important applications of nuclear physics in the field of medicine. We will also explore the basics of what we know about quarks and other substructures smaller than nuclei.

    • 31.0: Prelude to Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
      There is an ongoing quest to find substructures of matter. At one time, it was thought that atoms would be the ultimate substructure, but just when the first direct evidence of atoms was obtained, it became clear that they have a substructure and a tiny nucleus. The nucleus itself has spectacular characteristics.
    • 31.1: Nuclear Radioactivity
      The discovery and study of nuclear radioactivity quickly revealed evidence of revolutionary new physics. In addition, uses for nuclear radiation also emerged quickly—for example, people such as Ernest Rutherford used it to determine the size of the nucleus and devices were painted with radon-doped paint to make them glow in the dark. We therefore begin our study of nuclear physics with the discovery and basic features of nuclear radioactivity.
    • 31.2: Radiation Detection and Detectors
      It is well known that ionizing radiation affects us but does not trigger nerve impulses. Newspapers carry stories about unsuspecting victims of radiation poisoning who fall ill with radiation sickness, such as burns and blood count changes, but who never felt the radiation directly. This makes the detection of radiation by instruments more than an important research tool. This section is a brief overview of radiation detection and some of its applications.
    • 31.3: Substructure of the Nucleus
      What is inside the nucleus? Why are some nuclei stable while others decay?  Why are there different types of decay ( α , β and γ )? Why are nuclear decay energies so large? Pursuing natural questions like these has led to far more fundamental discoveries than you might imagine.
    • 31.4: Nuclear Decay and Conservation Laws
      Nuclear decay has provided an amazing window into the realm of the very small. Nuclear decay gave the first indication of the connection between mass and energy, and it revealed the existence of two of the four basic forces in nature. In this section, we explore the major modes of nuclear decay; and, like those who first explored them, we will discover evidence of previously unknown particles and conservation laws.
    • 31.5: Half-Life and Activity
      Unstable nuclei decay. However, some nuclides decay faster than others. For example, radium and polonium, discovered by the Curies, decay faster than uranium. This means they have shorter lifetimes, producing a greater rate of decay. In this section we explore half-life and activity, the quantitative terms for lifetime and rate of decay.
    • 31.6: Binding Energy
      The more tightly bound a system is, the stronger the forces that hold it together and the greater the energy required to pull it apart. We can therefore learn about nuclear forces by examining how tightly bound the nuclei are. We define the binding energy (BE) of a nucleus to be the energy required to completely disassemble it into separate protons and neutrons. We can determine the BE of a nucleus from its rest mass. The two are connected through Einstein’s famous relationship: E=mc².
    • 31.7: Tunneling
      Protons and neutrons are bound inside nuclei, that means energy must be supplied to break them away.
    • 31.E: Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics (Exercises)

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).