A matter of perspective: Unleashing the power of particle physics

April 14, 2021, 9:30AMANS Nuclear Cafe
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their lab in Germany in 1913.

Comparing matter to a “lush tapestry, woven from a complex assortment of threads,” physics writer Emily Conover traces the evolution of our understanding of the atom over the past century in the recent Science News article, “How matter’s hidden complexity unleashed the power of nuclear physics.” Conover uncovers how our vision of matter changed from that of a “no-nonsense plaid” to one of an “ornate brocade,” ultimately transforming nuclear physics from an arcane academic pursuit to something that forever changed the world.

Beginning with the simple two-particle (electron and proton) paradigm of the early 20th century, Conover explains how succeeding discoveries of new, more fundamental particles led to the ability of humans to harness the incredible power of nuclear energy, while also informing the standard model of particle physics that is accepted today.

History lesson: Through the article, Conover guides readers through the groundbreaking discoveries of the past 100 years, from James Chadwick’s experiments with beryllium that led to the discovery of the neutron in the 1930s, to the finding of the Higgs boson in 2012. Along the way, Conover checks in with many of the luminaries in the world of particle physics: Szilard, Fermi, Meitner, Hahn, Curie, Bohr, and others recognizable by only their surnames.

These discoveries logically conclude, for better and worse, in the ability to unlock the enormous power of the atom, Conover explains—first with the development of the atomic bomb (a brief history of the Manhattan Project is provided), and eventually toward peaceful purposes with nuclear power reactors (beginning with Oak Ridge’s X-10 and Idaho’s EBR-I reactors).

“And humankind’s mastery over matter is not yet complete,” Conover concludes, noting the progress made in generating power through nuclear fusion.

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