There are three main areas that are dealt with in nuclear physics: fusion, fission and decay. Fusion is the process of pushing and sticking together two particles, to release energy and create a different atom. This process can only happen for small particles, when the size of the particle gets too big it becomes too difficult to stick particles together and so instead the bigger particles are broken up, this is fission. Decay is slightly different, thousands of particles are "unstable", this means they want to break pieces off in order to become "stable". When a particle is stable it can stay that way continually. The process of the particle breaking a piece of itself off is called decay, this includes alpha, beta and gamma decay. In alpha decay the small pieces are helium nuclei. Beta decay is the release of electrons or positrons (opposite of electrons). Gamma decay is the release of photons (small packets of light).
Duringfusion, fission and decay detectors are used to measure the type of particles that are released during and at the end of the process. Fission and fusion are used to create the particles that physicists want to study. For my research particle accelerators are used to speed up particles and crash them into other particles to cause a reaction, detectors are then used to look at what happens in the reaction. This is one of the ways physicists are able to find new elements for the periodic table. The elements at the bottom of the periodic table (lanthanides and actinides) are the newest elements. Most of these lanthanides and actinides live for only a few seconds after being created in a particle accelerator.
In October 2013 I will be starting my PhD in nuclear physics. My research, and indeed the research of any nuclear physicist, may sound rather confusing to anyone who has not studied physics for the last four years at university, so here is something that might make it easier to digest.
The Queen Mary University of London has used Lego as a way to bring science to the classroom in a more innovative way, as part of their outreach program. Each Lego brick represents a different particle and demonstrations can be given to show these nuclear physics processes. There is a wide variety of kits available for all ages to make learning science and engineering more interactive and exciting, and most importantly more memorable. Many of you may already have a Lego collection, which you can use to start learning more about nuclear physics.
Lego is something every child enjoys playing with, and secretly mum and dad enjoy it too. Follow the link below to have a look at what is on offer.