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 Strong Nuclear Force, Alpha Decay and Fission

Once physicists realized that nuclei consisted of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, they had a problem on their hands. The electrical forces among the protons are all repulsive, so the nucleus should simply fly apart! The reason all the nuclei in your body are not spontaneously exploding at this moment is that there is another force acting. This force, called the strong nuclear force, is always attractive, and acts between neutrons and neutrons, neutrons and protons, and protons and protons with roughly equal strength. The strong nuclear force does not have any effect on electrons, which is why it does not influence chemical reactions.

Unlike the electric forces, whose strengths are given by the simple Coulomb force law, there is no simple formula for how the strong nuclear force depends on distance. Roughly speaking, it is effective over ranges of ~1 fm, but falls off extremely quickly at larger distances (much faster than 1/r2). Since the radius of a neutron or proton is about 1 fm, that means that when a bunch of neutrons and protons are packed together to form a nucleus, the strong nuclear force is effective only between neighbors.

The figure illustrates how the strong nuclear force acts to keep ordinary nuclei together, but is not able to keep very heavy nuclei from breaking apart. In (a), a proton in the middle of a carbon nucleus feels an attractive strong nuclear force (arrows) from each of its nearest neighbors. The forces are all in different directions, and tend to cancel out. The same is true for the repulsive electrical forces (not shown). (b) A proton at the edge of the nucleus has neighbors only on one side, and therefore all the strong nuclear forces acting on it are tending to pull it back in. Although all the electrical forces from the other five protons (dark arrows) are all pushing it out of the nucleus, they are not sufficient to overcome the strong nuclear forces.

In a very heavy nucleus, (c), a proton that finds itself near the edge has only a few neighbors close enough to attract it significantly via the strong nuclear force, but every other proton in the nucleus exerts a repulsive electrical force on it. If the nucleus is large enough, the total electrical repulsion may be sufficient to overcome the attraction of the strong force, and the nucleus may spit out a proton. Proton emission is fairly rare, however; a more common type of radioactive decay in heavy nuclei is alpha decay, shown in (d). The imbalance of the forces is similar, but the chunk that is ejected is an alpha particle (two protons and two neutrons) rather than a single proton.

It is also possible for the nucleus to split into two pieces of roughly equal size, (e), a process known as fission.

When a nucleus is able to undergo one of these processes, it is said to be radioactive, and to undergo radioactive decay. Some of the naturally occurring nuclei on earth are radioactive. The term "radioactive" comes from Becquerel's image of rays radiating out from something, not from radio waves, which are a whole different phenomenon. The term "decay" can also be a little misleading, since it implies that the nucleus turns to dust or simply disappears -- actually it is splitting into two new nuclei with an the same total number of neutrons and protons, so the term "radioactive transformation" would have been more appropriate. Although the original atom's electrons are mere spectators in the process of weak radioactive decay, we often speak loosely of "radioactive atoms" rather than "radioactive nuclei."

Randomness in physics

How does an atom decide when to decay? We might imagine that it is like a termite-infested house that gets weaker and weaker, until finally it reaches the day on which it is destined to fall apart. Experiments, however, have not succeeded in detecting such "ticking clock" hidden below the surface; the evidence is that all atoms of a given isotope are absolutely identical. Why, then, would one uranium atom decay today while another lives for another million years? The answer appears to be that it is entirely random. We can make general statements about the average time required for a certain isotope to decay, or how long it will take for half the atoms in a sample to decay (its half-life), but we can never predict the behavior of a particular atom.

This is the first example we have encountered of an inescapable ran-domness in the laws of physics. If this kind of randomness makes you uneasy, you're in good company. Einstein's famous quote is "...I am convinced that He [God] does not play dice." Einstein's distaste for randomness, and his association of determinism with divinity, goes back to the Enlightenment conception of the universe as a gigantic piece of clock-work that only had to be set in motion initially by the Builder. Physics had to be entirely rebuilt in the 20th century to incorporate the fundamental randomness of physics, and this modern revolution is the topic of book 6 of this series. In particular, we will delay the mathematical development of the half-life concept until then.

Last Update: 2009-06-21