This image has transfixed the world since World War II. When Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the scientific team that developed the atomic bomb, witnessed the first atomic explosion, he quoted from a sacred Hindu text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
What is the physics behind this image that has so horrified the world?
The answer is in this chapter.
Now that we have discussed some of the properties of nuclei, let’s turn to a central concern of physics and certain types of engineering: Can we get useful energy from nuclear sources, as people have done for thousands of years from atomic sources by burning materials like wood and coal?
As you already know, the answer is yes, but there are major differences between the two energy sources. When we get energy from wood and coal by burning them, we are tinkering with atoms of carbon and oxygen, rearranging their outer electrons into more stable combinations. When we get energy from uranium in a nuclear reactor, we are again burning a fuel, but now we are tinkering with the uranium nucleus, rearranging its nucleons into more stable combinations.
Electrons are held in atoms by the electromagnetic Coulomb force, and it takes only a few electron-volts to pull one of them out. On the other hand, nucleons ...