Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

The discovery of the neutron

This was the type of reasoning employed by James Chadwick in his 1932 discovery of the neutron. At the time, the atom was imagined to be made out of two types of fundamental particles, protons and electrons. The protons were far more massive, and clustered together in the atom's core, or nucleus. Attractive electrical forces caused the electrons to orbit the nucleus in circles, in much the same way that gravitational forces kept the planets from cruising out of the solar system. Experiments showed that the helium nucleus, for instance, exerted exactly twice as much electrical force on an electron as a nucleus of hydrogen, the smallest atom, and this was explained by saying that helium had two protons to hydrogen's one. The trouble was that according to this model, helium would have two electrons and two protons, giving it precisely twice the mass of a hydrogen atom with one of each. In fact, helium has about four times the mass of hydrogen.

Chadwick suspected that the helium nucleus possessed two additional particles of a new type, which did not participate in electrical forces at all, i.e., were electrically neutral. If these particles had very nearly the same mass as protons, then the four-to-one mass ratio of helium and hydrogen could be explained. In 1930, a new type of radiation was discovered that seemed to fit this description. It was electrically neutral, and seemed to be coming from the nuclei of light elements that had been exposed to other types of radiation. At this time, however, reports of new types of particles were a dime a dozen, and most of them turned out to be either clusters made of previously known particles or else previously known particles with higher energies. Many physicists believed that the new particle that had attracted Chadwick's interest was really a previously known particle called a gamma ray, which was electrically neutral. Since gamma rays have no mass, Chadwick decided to try to determine the new particle's mass and see if it was nonzero and approximately equal to the mass of a proton.

Unfortunately a subatomic particle is not something you can just put on a scale and weigh. Chadwick came up with an ingenious solution. The masses of the nuclei of the various chemical elements were already known, and techniques had already been developed for measuring the speed of a rapidly moving nucleus. He therefore set out to bombard samples of selected elements with the mysterious new particles. When a direct, head-on collision occurred between a mystery particle and the nucleus of one of the target atoms, the nucleus would be knocked out of the atom, and he would measure its velocity.

Chadwick's subatomic pool table. A disk of the naturally occurring metal polonium provides a source of radiation capable of kicking neutrons out of the beryllium nuclei. The type of radiation emitted by the polonium is easily absorbed by a few mm of air, so the air has to be pumped out of the left-hand chamber. The neutrons, Chadwick's mystery particles, penetrate matter far more readily, and fly out through the wall and into the chamber on the right, which is filled with nitrogen or hydrogen gas. When a neutron collides with a nitrogen or hydrogen nucleus, it kicks it out of its atom at high speed, and this recoiling nucleus then rips apart thousands of other atoms of the gas. The result is an electrical pulse that can be detected in the wire on the right. Physicists had already calibrated this type of apparatus so that they could translate the strength of the electrical pulse into the velocity of the recoiling nucleus. The whole apparatus shown in the figure would fit in the palm of your hand, in dramatic contrast to today's giant particle accelerators.

Suppose, for instance, that we bombard a sample of hydrogen atoms with the mystery particles. Since the participants in the collision are fundamental particles, there is no way for kinetic energy to be converted into heat or any other form of energy, and Chadwick thus had two equations in three unknowns:

equation #1: conservation of momentum

equation #2: no loss of kinetic energy

unknown #1: mass of the mystery particle

unknown #2: initial velocity of the mystery particle

unknown #3: final velocity of the mystery particle

The number of unknowns is greater than the number of equations, so there is no unique solution. But by creating collisions with nuclei of another element, nitrogen, he gained two more equations at the expense of only one more unknown:

equation #3: conservation of momentum in the new collision

equation #4: no loss of kinetic energy in the new collision

unknown #4: final velocity of the mystery particle in the new collision

He was thus able to solve for all the unknowns, including the mass of the mystery particle, which was indeed within 1% of the mass of a proton. He named the new particle the neutron, since it is electrically neutral.

Discussion Question

A Good pool players learn to make the cue ball spin, which can cause it not to stop dead in a head-on collision with a stationary ball. If this does not violate the laws of physics, what hidden assumption was there in the example above?

Last Update: 2009-06-21