SAN FRANCISCO — Nuclear science – and a host of other endeavors that involve the production, study and use of rare isotopes – is undergoing a quiet but dramatic revolution.
That's the conclusion of Brad Sherrill, professor of physics at Michigan State University, who says that the relatively new ability to create novel forms of atomic nuclei may be one of the great, underappreciated transformations in the physical sciences today. Sherrill is based at MSU's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL).
In today's symposium titled, "Femtoscience: From Nuclei to Nuclear Medicine," organized by Sherrill at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco, researchers from NSCL and other laboratories will describe the potential effects in several familiar fields: astrophysics, medicine and national security.
Ernest Rutherford discovered the nuclear nature of matter in the early 1900s. For most of history that followed, scientists curious about the dense knots of protons and neutrons that comprise atomic nuclei have for the most part been limited to studying the roughly 300 stable isotopes that exist in nature.
That's not the case anymore.
Thanks to existing and planned accelerator technology in physics laboratories around the world, scientists may soon have several thousand isotopes at their disposal.
"We're starting to realize that the future of many different disciplines is going to be impacted by this," said Sherrill.
David Dean, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, will address the links to the decidedly unfamiliar and fuzzy world of mesoscopic science – the study of self-organization and complexity arising from elementary interactions among many dozens or hundreds of particles. A better grasp of mesoscopic science may help advance the field of quantum computing, among others.
The symposium's title is an allusion to the fact that nuclear scientists currently can tinker with nature on the femtometer scale, roughly one million times smaller than what is used to make measurements in the field of nanotechnology.
The comparison to nanotechnology, or at least to the broader realm of nanoscience, is apt in another sense, Sherrill said. Today, examples abound of basic and applied research in nanoscience. To
the casual observer the field may seem to have arrived all of a sudden – a perception that's likely the result of excessive hype by companies hoping to cash in on the latest buzzword – though in fact it is the result of decades of slow, steady advances in physics and engineering.
"In nanoscience, there wasn't one day where scientists said 'okay, now we can do nanoscience,'" said Sherrill.
Similarly, during the last few decades, scientists at facilities such as NSCL and others in Germany and Japan have been using accelerators to create new forms of nuclei with ratios of protons of neutrons that don't exist on Earth. Plans for new, more powerful accelerators will only add to the stable of isotopes at researchers' disposal. Recently, the National Academies released a draft report in December that lent strong support to the idea a new U.S. radioactive beam facility.
For now, the proliferation of such exotic nuclei is mostly helping to rewrite the physics textbooks that Sherrill read as a graduate student. But soon, he said, the potential impact of this work may be far more dramatic.
"Sometime revolutions develop slowly," he said. "You get in the middle of them before you realize it's really happened."
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