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Nuclear Structure

All matter is composed of atoms that are in turn composed of a heavier, central,
positively charged core surrounded by a less massive negatively charged cloud of
electrons. The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons which have about the
same mass and are known as nucleons.

The number of protons in a nucleus tells you which element the atom is. Atoms of a
given element always have the same number of protons. Three numbers describe the
composition of a nucleus:
Atomic Number (Z) the number of protons in the nucleus
Neutron Number (N) the number of neutrons in the nucleus
Atomic Mass Number (A) the number of nucleons in the nucleus

An element or atom is described using the notation



Z is the atomic number

A is the atomic mass number
X is the generic symbol for the element

Four fundamental interactions occur between the particles in an atom: gravitation,

electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.
Gravitation is by far the weakest of the four interactions. Its effects are only
significant when it acts between massive objects and it plays almost no role at the
atomic level.
Electromagnetism acts between electrically charges particles, either attracting or
repelling the particles on which it acts. The magnetic and electrostatic forces produce
the electromagnetic interaction. It is electromagnetism that binds negatively charged
electrons to the positively charged protons in the nucleus to form atoms.
The strong nuclear force is a powerful attractive force that is much stronger than the
electrostatic force. This force is strong enough to overwhelm the repulsive
electromagnetic force and bind the nucleons together to form the nucleus. The strong
nuclear force has a very short range, approximately one femtometre, which is less
than the diameter of a nucleus. At greater distances, the strong force is practically
The weak nuclear force is responsible for processes in which one particle changes
into another type of particle.

Although neutrons have no charge, they actually help to hold the nucleus together.
Neutrons add to the strong nuclear force without adding to the repulsive electrostatic
force of the positively charged protons. Most atoms have at least as many neutrons as
protons. In general, the more protons there are in the nucleus, the higher the
proportion of neutrons that are needed to hold the nucleus together.
When the number of neutrons is plotted against the number of protons for various
isotopes, a pattern for nuclear stability is observed. Stable nuclei tend to have equal
numbers of protons and neutrons for the first 20 elements. Larger stable elements
contain more neutrons than protons to counteract the proton-proton repulsion. Above
Z = 82, no number of neutrons can produce the force required to form a stable nucleus
and they will decay.