Horizon - [1992-03-02]
Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the constituents and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those in nuclear medicine and magnetic resonance imaging, ion implantation in materials engineering, and radiocarbon dating in geology and archaeology.
The field of particle physics evolved out of nuclear physics and is typically taught in close association with nuclear physics.
The history of nuclear physics as a discipline distinct from atomic physics starts with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896, while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts. The discovery of the electron by J. J. Thomson a year later was an indication that the atom had internal structure. At the turn of the 20th century the accepted model of the atom was J. J. Thomson's plum pudding model in which the atom was a large positively charged ball with small negatively charged electrons embedded inside of it. By the turn of the century physicists had also discovered three types of radiation emanating from atoms, which they named alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Experiments in 1911 by Otto Hahn, and by James Chadwick in 1914 discovered that the beta decay spectrum was continuous rather than discrete. That is, electrons were ejected from the atom with a range of energies, rather than the discrete amounts of energies that were observed in gamma and alpha decays. This was a problem for nuclear physics at the time, because it indicated that energy was not conserved in these decays.
In 1905, Albert Einstein formulated the idea of massâ€“energy equivalence. While the work on radioactivity by Becquerel and Marie Curie predates this, an explanation of the source of the energy of radioactivity would have to wait for the discovery that the nucleus itself was composed of smaller constituents, the nucleons.