Monday, 10 August 2015

The Atomic Nucleus and Nuclear Energy - Talks for ScienceforAll Outreach Programme

Study of the atomic nucleus is a rewarding endeavour.  It all started as a serendipitous discovery of radioactivity of uranium in 1895; and Marie Curie's hard labour elevated the study of the nucleus to a separate and distinct branch of physics.
The nucleus of an atom is a fascinating object - in day to day life, we are not aware of its existence. But what goes on inside a nucleus has far reaching implications.  The world around us works in an electron Volt (eV) regime. (In a 1.5 Volt battery, an electron gains an energy of 1.5 eV in going between the negative and positive elctrodes).  All chemical, biological and optical processes operate in the eV energy regime.  Nuclear processes operate in the MeV (million electron Volt) regime - energies involved are much much higher - researchers had to develop a lot of new instrumentation and methods to study the nucleus.
The study has been rewarding bestowing great benefits to our society.  Medical applications of radioactivity in radiology, medical imaging like PET and MRI are taken for granted. Geology has gained enormously due to the radiometric analysis of rocks, meteorites etc.; to define a reliable geological clock would be impossible without nuclear studies. The study makes it possible to monitor climate change and analyse sources of green house gases etc.  Nuclear power has great potential in mitigating the effects of climate change by replacing fossil fuels.  
But the greatest benefit of nuclear studies comes about by the development of new technology.  The need to handle large amounts of data and service the communication requirements of large groups spread around the globe engendered the development of the World Wide Web and the Internet.  Big advances in electronics, data processing and computer technology happened because nuclear studies demanded such capabilities.
For good reason, a nucleus is called the most versatile laboratory available. It exhibits such large and varied science that many theories, which will be difficult to test otherwise, can be checked.  Predictions of Einstein's theory of special  and also of general relativity were tested in nuclear physics labs.  
The nucleus is a tiny entity - 100,000 times smaller than an atom and everything that happens inside a nucleus requires quantum mechanics and relativistic theories for their description.  To complicate matters, most nuclei are complex many body systems.  It is a challenge to study and understand what happens in a nucleus.

In this course, I have restricted myself to the study of the nucleus where protons and neutrons are treated as fundamental particles.  They do have structure  - they are made of three quarks - but that is the subject of another course.
The course was given in Glasgow in 2008.  Not much has changed in nuclear physics since then  - so almost everything is up to date.  The course is meant for general public without serious science background and is eminently suited for school pupils, communities and first year university students.
The talks are organised as follows:
Talk 1:  Introduction, Discovery, Properties
Talk 2:  Radioactivity, Discovery, Nuclear Decay Modes, Applications of Radioactivity
Talk 3:  Nuclear Force, Binding Energies, Fission and Fusion
Talk 4:  Nuclear Power, Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs

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