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Nuclear Physics - A Definition

Nuclear physics is a fascinating field that studies the behaviour of atomic nuclei and their interactions with subatomic particles. It is crucial in several industries, from energy production to medical imaging.

This article will delve into the basics of nuclear physics, its applications, and how it shapes our world.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The nucleus contains protons and neutrons, which determine the element's properties.

  2. Nuclear reactions involve changes to the nucleus of an atom, which can release energy in the form of radiation.

  3. Nuclear power plants use nuclear reactions to generate electricity. They work by heating water using nuclear reactions and using steam to turn turbines that generate electricity.

  4. Nuclear physics has several applications in medical imaging, including X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans.

  5. Nuclear fusion, the process of combining atomic nuclei, has the potential to provide a nearly unlimited source of clean energy. However, it is still in the experimental stage.

Understanding Nuclear Physics

To understand the basics of nuclear physics, it's important to know a few key terms and concepts:

  1. Atomic structure: All matter comprises atoms, consisting of a nucleus at the centre made up of protons and neutrons and electrons orbiting around the nucleus.

  2. Isotopes: Atoms of the same element that have a different number of neutrons are called isotopes. Some isotopes are stable, while others are unstable and can undergo radioactive decay.

  3. Radioactive decay is the process by which unstable isotopes release energy and particles to become more stable. There are three main types of radioactive decay: alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay.

  4. Nuclear reactions: These are processes that involve changes in the nucleus of an atom. They can be induced by bombarding the nucleus with particles or radiation or occur spontaneously.

  5. Nuclear fission is the process by which a large nucleus is split into two or more smaller nuclei, releasing a large amount of energy in the process. This process is used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity.

  6. Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or smaller nuclei combine to form a larger nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy in the process. This process is the source of energy in stars.

Understanding these concepts is key to understanding the science behind nuclear physics and the various applications of nuclear energy. While nuclear physics can be complex, having a basic grasp of these concepts can go a long way in understanding the principles behind nuclear energy and its applications.

Find out more about nuclear physics

If you're interested in learning more about nuclear physics, several great resources are available. You can start by checking out the National Nuclear Data Center's website, which offers a wealth of information on nuclear physics and related topics. Additionally, many universities offer courses in nuclear physics, which can be a great way to dive deeper into the field.


Nuclear physics is a critical field that impacts many aspects of our daily lives. From generating electricity to medical imaging, nuclear physics has numerous applications that shape our world. As researchers continue to study atomic nuclei and their behaviour, we can expect to see new applications and technologies that harness the power of nuclear physics in exciting ways.


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Recommended Reading (or listening): Atomic Habits by James Clear