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Pear Shaped Nuclei

May 8, 2013

I’m going to be up front and say that physics is really confusing to me, probably because I’m a normal person and physics is wack. Anyway – there was an article published in Nature about the “pear-shaped nucleus of radium 224,” and I was like oh FINALLY someone answered that for me! LOL – no seriously I was like what do these words even mean?


I know what atoms are, and that they are comprised of a nucleus (protons and neutrons) and a cloud of electrons that swirl around them… but I always pictured them with a little spherical marble center. Sort of like a jawbreaker or something, right? Apparently not.

It turns out scientists already thought nuclei could take on funky shapes – since they are blobs of protons and neutrons (the teeny little particles that make up the central nucleus of every single atom). For the sake of this post let’s think of protons and neutrons as blobs of cookie dough. You can put them together and they will stick to each other because sugar – although in physics it’s due to something called the “strong” force. You can obviously clump them into a sphere, or you could clump them into an oblong shape or even a pear if you’re feeling as crazy as radium 224.

Each type of atom is defined by the number of protons in it’s nucleus – so all atoms with one proton are hydrogen, two protons makes it helium, and so on up the periodic table. However, the number of neutrons can differ for each element… so there are three types of hydrogen for example. The all have one proton (by definition), but they can have either ZERO neutrons (1H), ONE neutron (2H) or TWO neutrons (3H). They’re all hydrogen but they are different isotopes.

Boom. Physics.

Radium has 25 known isotopes, the most common of which is radium 226 (88 protons, 138 neutrons). However the one in this article was radium 224 – this guy has two less neutrons.

So to make a long story short, with math and magic, a crazy amount of work, and some particle accelerators… scientists observed the pattern of emitted gamma rays (LOL REMEMBER THOSE GUYS?) from radium 224 – and the calculations confirm their former suspicions that the nucleus of this element is indeed shaped like a pear, just like Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Jennifer Love Hewitt will be so pleased to hear the news

The dress in the middle really brings out her eyes

Basically this means that physicists can use this information to probe the shapes of other atomic nuclei, and learn more about the forces that govern our universe. Apparently this is going to help us better understand the relationship between matter and antimatter (but I can’t tell how because I’m not a super genius). Man… they discovered the Higgs Boson and the big booty nucleus all within the last few months. It’s been a banner year for particle physicists!


From → Physics

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