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Career in Nuclear Physics

Mitchell Turk


English III

20th January 2018

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Mitchell Turk


English III

20th January 2018

Nuclear Physics

Since the early twentieth century, nuclear energy has shaped the world. The first

practical application of fission reactions included their weaponization and applications in

energy production. Over time, however, as physicists came to better understand the atom and

its nucleus, they began to exploit its properties to enhance the fields of medicine,

architecture, manufacturing and technology. Medicine, a rapidly advancing nuclear field,

creates a high demand for physicists’ knowledge of handling radioactive materials.

Surprisingly, architecture includes areas where physicists participate as well. Properly

qualified physicists contribute to constructing sustainable structures. Manufacturing and

technology apply physics in computation, materials detection, navigation, and space travel.

All of the innovations in these fields result from an era of rapid discovery that started in the

late nineteenth century and continues today as part of the field of subatomic physics. This

field of study focuses on researching matter in its smallest constituents (specifically, smaller

than the atom). These constituents include atomic nuclei, all particles that atomic nuclei

consist of, and all other particles smaller than the atom. The field of subatomic physics grew

and underwent a division during this time into two more specific areas of study, nuclear and

particle physics. The ideas and principles of particles physics remain quite intriguing.
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Credited with the discoveries of fundamental pieces of the “standard model of physics”.

Without these, much of modern physics and the innovations that have come about as a result

would not exist; however, in the eyes of many, nuclear physics serves as an area of greater

employment opportunity when compared to a career in particle physics. Nuclear physics

simply has more career opportunities that already exist today. This along with the fact that

nuclear physics remains a field of utmost importance in acquiring new data concerning the

atom, its nucleus, and the reactions and processes that take place within it.

Nuclear physics has led to the discovery and further understanding of subatomic

particles and atomic nuclei. In addition, while rapid development and increasing innovation

in numerous fields often characterizes the twentieth century, far more discovery and growth

took place in nuclear physics. A century may seem like plenty of time for such progress to

occur, but compared to other time periods, the rate of growth experienced in nuclear physics

had no precedent. Over the course of the century, researchers went from proving basic

theories regarding the makeup of large molecules, to proving the existence of smaller

components of nucleons such as quarks (Dziak). This began with the scientists Ernest

Rutherford and Niels Bohr mapping the structure of the atom in an astonishingly accurate

way, and despite current models far outshining it, physicists may have never gotten this far

without this model. Commonly referred to as the Rutherford-Bohr model, it provided the

most detailed depiction of the atom up to that time. It also correctly depicted the existence of

protons and neutrons in the nucleus and displayed the manner in which electrons surrounded

the nucleus. For decades, common belief held that only these nuclear components existed.

Eventually, however, the existence of two other mysterious particles came to the attention of
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researchers. These particles, called neutrinos and positrons caused a revolution in the field.

Their identification led to a time of rapid discovery that led to scanning atoms beyond human

perception; eventually, resulting in the discovery of delta, sigma, and epsilon particles. With

each of these discoveries, one by one, the number of theories proposed to explain the

fundamental aspects of physics narrowed as researchers invalidated older theories. By the

end of the twentieth century, physicists would discover almost one hundred particles. Also,

regarding more modern research and development in the twenty-first century, physicists have

started synthesizing new elements in particle accelerators and developing methods that can

allow for the manipulation of matter on the molecular level (Ananthanarayan). All of these

advancements have further proven what researchers refer to as the “standard model of

physics” to hold the most true correct. This model of physics remains the most accurate

prediction of modern physics. It includes descriptions of all the particles we have discovered

and describes their properties (Krishnan). With the discoveries and predictions of the

standard model, scientists have started altering the chemical-electric composition of special

materials (often semiconductors) and altering its uses by infusing new ions into these

materials (a process called doping). A very common semiconductor, for example, the

element silicon, applies to a variety of technologies and fields after the “doping” process

ends, including the development of jewels and computer chips (Auerbach). This path will

only continue to create new opportunities for research and discovery. Though, in order to

come to this conclusion, a necessary step needed to take place: conducting an inquiry into the

history of nuclear physics.

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Physics does indeed have a history of making great contributions to science and

industry and continues to do so. Countless examples permeate the last century as well as

more contemporary history. The first example of such innovations, the development of the

atomic bomb, a weapon of unfathomable power that could destroy entire cities and leave

entire regions uninhabitable for decades due to radioactive fallout. It worked by starting a

chain fission reaction, which would result in explosions of immense size. The heat given off

from the blast of one of these weapons could cause third degree burns from miles away and

could potentially kill entire armies. Two designs came to fruition during the “Manhattan

Project,” the project started by the U.S government to produce nuclear weapons. The first

called “little boy,” which used a uranium pellet “gun” design which fired a uranium pellet

into a chamber where the chain fission reaction took place. The second bomb, “fat man,” an

implosion type nuclear weapon, ended up somewhat more devastating. Despite the fact that

“fat man” yielded a slightly more powerful blast, both resulted in an explosion with the force

of thousands of tons of TNT (Pearson). Eventually, fusion reactions would act as an initial

explosion that would cause much more devastating explosions, equivalent to the explosive

forces of millions of tons of TNT. Explosive forces of this magnitude could flatten islands

and shatter windows hundreds of miles away. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the cold war took

center stage; however, some scientists remained more interested in creating sustainable

fission based power. This interest led to the world's first nuclear reactors, which could

provide energy to entire cities for decades without the need to add more fuel. Unfortunately,

“sustainable” did not quite describe the actual technology itself, even for more contemporary

designs. Although fission reactions do provide decades worth of power, the waste it produces
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has very harmful properties such as high radioactivity and toxicity. Sealing the waste

underground remains the only reliable method of storage. Though, over time, the waste still

finds ways to seep out of the structures that engineers built to contain it. Also, only

approximately thirty percent of the heat produced by the reactor will end up utilized by the

turbine as steam to provide usable electricity. However, due to the world's immediate

problems such as water scarcity and future electricity demands, nuclear energy has once

again become more needed than ever. It could provide a long term solution to the energy

crisis and potentially a bridge to the “hydrogen economy” (a system where hydrogen would

provide society its primary energy source) assuming that a “hydrogen economy” ever occurs.

Fortunately, the new reactor designs needed to accomplish the aim of low waste and

high efficiency would require new physicists to help manage and design them. Meanwhile, in

other areas of study, new technologies have allowed for the observation of things much

smaller than the atom and their interactions. A common example includes particle

accelerators, large ring shaped machines that accelerate particles to near light speed and then

collide them with other particles to analyze the energy released by the collision. Other

devices include spectrometers, machines that analyze the wavelength of light given off by an

atom, and frequency analyzers, designed to detect radiation and its intensity. Current research

uses this new technology to focus on potential applications in nuclear medicine, archaeology,

and space exploration. In medicine, doctors may administer special radioactive materials to

patients to allow for the easy detection of illnesses such as cancer. The process involves

injecting the patient with radioactive materials that collect in specific locations in the body.

Depending on the intended use, these materials can end up in tumors or infected areas. The
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doctors then use special machines to measure the radiation coming from the patient to

determine the location of tumors, infections, or other illnesses. Using this technique, the

doctor can efficiently diagnose a patient and formulize a more specialized treatment plan

designed specifically for the patient and their illness. This has made it far easier for doctors

to identify and treat complex cancers that often spread throughout the body (Yordanova). In

archaeology, a special method of detecting specific atomic nuclei exists to determine the age

of a sample. The process called “neutron activation analysis” exposes the sample to a beam

of neutrons that interact with the sample and alters its structure. This alteration frequently

leaves the nuclei with excess energy, energy that releases when the researchers remove the

sample from the beam. The amount of energy released depends on the identity of the affected

nuclei, making it possible to identify it based upon this (Howes). Nuclear physicists also

experience high demand in space exploration. Space remains constantly saturated with

harmful cosmic rays, solar winds, and other types of radiation. The radiation can bring

extreme harm to the astronauts and can cause electronics onboard spacecraft to fail.

Currently, new research for discovering new lighter materials that could also provide

protection from this radiation requires the expertise of nuclear physicists. Although there

exist many methods of protection from radiation, most of them involve heavy elements,

which require more time and effort to get into orbit. With this in mind, physics also studies

the interaction between particles, radiation, and the nuclei of atoms. Despite all these new

opportunities however, fewer people tend to become physicists than ever (Lartigue). Which

means that the field offers a high demand with low supply, and therefore, little competition.
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Now that so many industries have started implementing using radioactive materials

and tracers into their processes, nuclear physicists have come into high demand. A thorough

understanding of and education in nuclear physics can lead to a successful and fulfilling

career. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics collected employment and wage

information for physicists overall and cited that approximately 16,860 physicists exist

nationwide. Out of these physicists, they calculated that the annual median wage of a

physicist stood at around $106,370 (LaPointe). So with the high demand and high average

pay, it would make sense that more people would try to get into the field than ever. However,

in order to achieve any sort of real credibility in physics requires at least a master's degree.

This may deter someone from pursuing the subject. In short, the low number of physicists

now employed likely resulted from the high expectations of the people involved in the field.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics collected these statistics in 2010, but they remain credible.

Most attribute this to the amount of innovation involved in the industry remaining steady.

Also, importantly, the employment statistics provided refers to physicists in general, not only

nuclear physicists. The Bureau does not collect data on employment for specific types of

physicists such as nuclear physicists. Of course, it does include nuclear physicists in its

general data. With this data, it remains a logical conclusion that nuclear physics is a field

with a great amount of opportunity and with a higher than average compensation level. The

basis for this conclusion combines my own judgement and that of a real physicist. “​Physics is

like a stamp that proves you can think and learn. Unlike many other degrees you get to make

your own path.” (Taylor). This quote from the physicist interviewed for this paper provides a

professional perspective and opinion on the issue, and describes why physics stands as a field
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that provides many unique opportunities. Nuclear physics as a career unquestionably

provides means to financial success.

Nuclear physics remains a field that makes significant contributions to society. The

innovations that have occurred as a result vary and have affected many fields in their

development. Without nuclear physics, much of the modern technology that humanity uses

daily would not function properly or perform with much reliability whatsoever. Examples of

these fields include medicine, architecture, manufacturing, and technology. Medicine has

different methods of treating complex diseases using radioactive materials. Architecture

involving nuclear plants and storage of radioactive waste requires professional input and

expertise. Manufacturing uses tracers and chemically altered substances in the products it

produces. Tech giants constantly require semiconductors in creating electronic devices. The

discoveries that paved the way for these innovations, achieved in rapid succession, did what

it took other fields centuries to accomplish. Scientists across the globe studied and

manipulated particles to see how they worked. Theories created in the wake of these

discoveries, theories that form the basis for the current understanding of the universe,

continue to define modern physics. With these new theories, new areas of innovation have

come to the attention of scientists. New, more sustainable nuclear reactors offer a promising

solution for the world's energy crisis. Archaeologists now examine the decay of atoms to

determine the age of the specimens that they have uncovered and doctors can identify tumors

throughout the body using nuclear tracers. Due to these developments, nuclear physicists

remain in high demand. Wages continue to rise and will continue to until the supply of

physicists meets the demand. Unfortunately, the requirements for any sort of recognition in
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these sciences require extensive studies and schooling. A commitment some people cannot

afford or others have no interest in pursuing. Precisely why nuclear physicists, despite high

demand, continue to exist in low supply.

In conclusion, nuclear physics will likely remain an indispensable field, one where

numerous advances have taken place that should. A field where the opportunities for a

successful career continue to increase dramatically and will likely provide a successful,

satisfying, challenging and financially stable career path.

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Works cited

Ananthanarayan, B. "Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science, 2015." ​Current

Science (00113891)​, vol. 111, no. 8, 25 Oct. 2016, p. 1407. EBSCO​host,


=eds-live&s cope=site​>

Auerbach, Michael P. "Nuclear Physics." Careers in Physics, Feb. 2013, p. 324. EBSCOhost,



Dziak, Mark. "Subatomic Particle." ​Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science​, 2014.



ds-l ive&scope=site​>

Howes, Ruth H. "Neutron Activation Analysis." ​Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science,​ 2013.




Krishnan, Chethan. "An Introductory Course of Particle Physics." ​Current Science

(00113891),​ vol. 108, no. 8, 25 Apr. 2015, p. 1548. EBSCO​host,​


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LaPointe, Jeffrey. "Medical Physicists and Health Physicists: Radiation Occupations."

Occupational Outlook Quarterly,​ vol. 55, no. 2, Summer2011, pp. 16-21.




Lartigue, J. and T. Martínez. "Trends in Nuclear Education." ​Journal of Radioanalytical &

Nuclear Chemistry​, vol. 276, no. 3, June 2008, pp. 849-855. EBSCO​host,​



Pearson, John. "Chapter One: Atomic History: Building the Bomb." ​Atomic Bomb​, Great

Neck Publishing, 8/1/2017, p. 1. EBSCO​host,​



Taylor, Brenton. “Personal Interview” 21, January 2018.

Yordanova, Anna, et al. "Theranostics in Nuclear Medicine Practice." ​Oncotargets &

Therapy​, vol. 10, Oct. 2017, pp. 4821-4828. EBSCO​host​,