Sunday, 21 February 2010

TTFN, BBFH

Nuclear Physics is not an isolated subject, but influences, and is influenced by other areas of physics, other scientific subjects, and wider society. One of the strongest and closest scientific links is in astrophysics, since stars are nothing but giant nuclear reactors. This realisation - that all elements heavier than lithium were created in the stars - does not go back to the days when the chemical elements were identified as such, or when it was realised that the elements are made of atoms with tiny nuclei at the centre. They were both pre-requisites for astrophysicists to finally understand what powers stars, namely nuclear fusion. The bulk of the puzzle was not solved until the 1950s (and indeed the entire picture is still not known) when a seminal work by Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle was published which laid bare most of the nuclear reactions that occur in stars, converting lighter elements to heavier, and responsible for all the heavy elements in our bodies ("we are all stardust.") Last month, one of the co-authors of the famous paper died. Though he wouldn't have called himself a nuclear physicist, he helped define the field.