Nuclear and particle physicists study the smallest detectable units of
matter. They answer the question: What is the universe really made of?
Those smallest elements are atoms -- tiny clusters of protons, electrons
and neutrons. Physicists break up the atoms and watch how the individual protons,
electrons and neutrons behave. They reduce matter to quarks -- the particles
that make up protons -- and mesons, pions and muons.
Eventually, nuclear physicists reach the bottom of the particle barrel.
Subatomic particles are just little points of energy.
Particle and nuclear physicists do much of their work in particle accelerator
facilities, such as TRIUMF at the University of British Columbia and CERN
in Switzerland. Inside these giant doughnuts, a particle beam is accelerated
around and around the loop, then smashed into a tank of other particles.
As the particles collide and spin off in all directions, electronic detectors
capture the information like a photograph.
As nuclear physicist Dave Axen explains, you can tell something about a
particle by the way it reacts when struck. It's much like studying billiard
balls on a pool table.
"Say you shoot the cue ball at some billiard balls," says Axen. "One of
the balls is made of a squishy spongy material. It would scatter very differently
than the hard billiard balls would. By its reaction to the collision, you
could tell something about its make-up."
Axen is mainly concerned with the nuclear parts of the atom. He wants to
learn about the force that holds protons together in the nucleus. This nuclear
force must be strong to overcome the electrical forces that would normally
push protons away from each other.
Particle physicists, on the other hand, are interested in those frustrating
little subatomic particles of which protons and neutrons are made.
Outside universities and research facilities, nuclear physicists can work
in the nuclear power industry, using their research and knowledge to help
harness the energy in uranium atoms. Particle physicists work mainly in universities
and research centers.
"In the '50s and '60s, nuclear power seemed to hold immense potential,
but the industry has slowed down," says Axen. "Nuclear power is expensive,
and alternative energy sources, such as hydroelectric power and fossil fuels,
have gained favor."
Al Stetz says nuclear physicists are a vanishing breed. "There are people
in nuclear engineering, but there aren't the mainline career opportunities
there were in the past." Stetz says most work with the nucleus has moved into
This type of work doesn't require a great deal of physical strength, but
you do have to think a lot. That usually means a good deal of sitting at a
desk or in a lab.
Study the smallest detectable units of matter