Nuclear Physics Explained

Course No. 1369
Professor Lawrence Weinstein, Ph.D.
Old Dominion University
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Course No. 1369
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What Will You Learn?

  • the origins and applications of nuclear physics
  • the structure of the nucleus: particles and forces
  • how particle accelerators and detectors work
  • the cause of radioactivity
  • the principles of medical imaging
  • plus, many other applications of nuclear physics

Course Overview

Nuclear radiation is everywhere. At this moment, byproducts of cosmic rays are raining down on you from the galaxy, neutrinos produced in the Sun are piercing your body by the trillions, and nuclear particles from everyday sources in rocks, air, food, and water are bombarding you from all directions. If you had a supersensitive “Geiger counter” that picked up all nuclear particles, it would chirp nonstop.

Yet despite this continuous exposure, “radiation” is a term that evokes worry and even panic. There are sources of radiation to be concerned about, but true vigilance lies in understanding the physics of the atomic nucleus—an endlessly interesting structure that defines the universe we live in.

Then, of course, there are nuclear weapons, which have arguably kept a fragile peace since the end of World War II, but which also threaten civilization with an unparalleled cataclysm. All of these insights, benefits, and dangers trace to an inconceivably tiny subatomic structure that was unknown until a century ago.

Covering the science, history, hazards, applications, and latest advances in the field, Nuclear Physics Explained is your guide to a subject that is rarely presented at a level suitable for non-scientists. In these 24 eye-opening, half-hour lectures, Professor Lawrence Weinstein of Old Dominion University begins by bringing you straight into the sometimes mind-bending ideas of nuclear physics, and then takes you into the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility to explain the awe-inspiring machines at the forefront of nuclear research—machines he is using in his own work. Then, the second half of the course—watchable separately but deepened by your engagement with key principles and methods from the first half—explores the many scientific and technological applications of nuclear physics, e.g., understanding accelerators in the first half deepens your understanding of nuclear medicine in the second half.

Throughout these lectures, Dr. Weinstein shows how nuclear physicists think, analyzing problems in a rapid, off-the-cuff style that dispenses with exact numbers in favor of rounding, making the math in the course easy to follow for anyone familiar with exponential notation. Viewers will find Dr. Weinstein’s presentation clear, enthusiastic, and tinged with humor. Plus, Nuclear Physics Explained is richly illustrated with diagrams, charts, and computer animations, as well as lab demonstrations that bring the nuclear realm alive.

Move beyond Three-Mile Island

An astonishingly productive field, nuclear physics accounts for such diverse phenomena and applications as these:

  • Particle physics and beyond: The gigantic instruments often called “atom smashers” are in fact probes of nuclear and other subatomic matter, revealing not only the fundamental constituents of nature, but also how they combine.
  • Astrophysics and cosmology: Nuclear physics not only explains how atoms work but also how stars shine—and why they sometimes explode. It also gives insight into the birth and evolution of the universe.
  • Medical tools and treatments: Nuclear processes make possible a wide range of medical imaging tools, such as X-ray, CT scan, PET scan, and MRI, as well as treatments for killing cancer cells.
  • Nuclear power: The energy released from nuclear fission provides 20 percent of the electricity generated in the US, and a much larger fraction in countries such as France and Sweden.

For many people, nuclear physics is inextricably linked to the reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island in the U.S., Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, and Fukushima in Japan. Dr. Weinstein investigates these costly power-plant disasters, which led to acute radiation deaths in the case of Chernobyl, but otherwise far less of a radiation impact on public health than was feared at the time. He details the lessons from the mishaps and looks ahead to the new generation of reactors that can be operated more safely, cheaply, and with less nuclear waste and risk of proliferation. He also explores the challenge of harnessing an even more potent nuclear process: fusion.

Look inside the Nucleus

The key to understanding nuclear physics is knowing what goes on inside the nucleus. Here, Dr. Weinstein takes the mystery out of a notoriously arcane subject, explaining such key concepts as:

  • Protons and neutrons: An atom’s central core, or nucleus, consists of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons (except for hydrogen, which has a single proton), held together by a short-range, but very strong, nuclear force. Surrounding the nucleus is a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
  • Elements and isotopes: Elements are the 92 naturally occurring atoms, each with a unique number of protons. The number of neutrons may vary, and these different forms of the elements are called isotopes, which may be unstable. The element tin has 10 stable isotopes, uranium has none. There are over 3,000 confirmed isotopes, with more created all the time.
  • Radioactivity: Unstable isotopes are prone to disintegrate, releasing high-energy alpha particles (helium nuclei), beta particles (electrons or positrons), or gamma rays (high-frequency light waves). These are the primary forms of nuclear radiation.

Dr. Weinstein delves deeply into what binds protons and neutrons together, how both are made of different types of quarks, how the curve of binding energy explains processes of both fission and fusion, other types of radioactive decay, and the enormous utility of a two-dimensional graph of isotopes called the table of nuclides, which he presents in a colorful, easy-to-read chart.

How do we know all this? Dr. Weinstein answers this question with a fascinating four-lecture tour of the impressive electron linear accelerator and research halls at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, which Dr. Weinstein knows inside and out. Later in the course, he takes you to the nearby Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute to witness the medical application of nuclear physics for targeting cancer cells with precision.

Risks and Rewards

Precision is vital with medical radiation so that healthy cells are not harmed. This underscores the risks as well as the benefits of radioactivity. Nuclear Physics Explained covers exactly what types of radiation are dangerous and which are less hazardous, including:

  • Radium: In the early 20th century, women painting luminous numbers on watches ingested dangerous amounts of radium by “pointing” brushes with their lips. Wearing a watch with a radium dial poses little if any risk, but ingesting radium can be lethal.
  • Radon: A radioactive gas, radon is a natural decay product of uranium and thorium in the Earth’s crust. It can concentrate in mines and basements in certain geological regions, where it is easily inhaled. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
  • “Dirty” bombs: A hypothetical “dirty” bomb uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. Anyone exposed would need to leave the area, remove potentially contaminated clothes, and shower, but the results would be more scary than harmful.
  • Bananas: Bananas are mildly radioactive, though not dangerous, due to their potassium content, which includes a tiny percentage of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope. The “banana equivalent dose” is a humorous way to quantify the radioactivity around us.

You’ll finish Nuclear Physics Explained by looking at how radiation reveals hidden worlds in space and time. For example, ratios of different isotopes can be used to date everything from human artifacts to continental collisions; gamma-ray and neutrino telescopes chart the most energetic and distant events in the cosmos; and cosmic rays—that ever-present rain of radiation from space—can be harnessed to analyze the structure of ancient buildings, such as the Great Pyramids. These examples and countless other applications show that nuclear physics is a versatile tool like no other.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    A Tour of the Nucleus and Nuclear Forces
    Take a whirlwind tour of nuclear physics, getting a glimpse of the rich array of topics and concepts you will cover in this course. Professor Weinstein explains the constituents of the nucleus; what holds the nucleus together, its role in determining atomic identity; and the nature of isotopes. He introduces two key tools: the periodic table of elements and the table of nuclides. x
  • 2
    Curve of Binding Energy: Fission and Fusion
    See how the strong and electromagnetic forces shape the nuclei of all atoms. Focus on the curve of binding energy, which explains why heavy nuclei are prone to fission, releasing energy in the process, while light nuclei release energy by fusing. Then, visit some classroom lab equipment to explore the principles that govern particle accelerators, which are used to probe the structure of nuclear matter. x
  • 3
    Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Decay
    Now turn to unstable nuclei and the process of radioactive decay. Trace three types of decay—alpha, beta, and gamma—studying the particles involved, their charge (or lack thereof) and energy ranges. Measure radioactivity with a Geiger counter, and consider what it would take to shield against each type of radiation. x
  • 4
    Radiation Sources, Natural and Unnatural
    Survey the sources of radiation in the world around us, bombarding us from the sky (cosmic rays), found in the ground (uranium and other naturally occurring radioactive elements), zapping us in medical procedures, and found in consumer goods. Look at some long-discontinued radiating products such as shoe fluoroscopy and Radithor, an ill-advised radium-laced health tonic. x
  • 5
    How Dangerous Is Radiation?
    Radiation terrifies many of us, but how scared should we be? Probe the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, focusing on what high-energy emissions do to DNA. Consider a host of radiation sources—from the innocuous, such as cell phones and power lines, to nuclear explosions and dirty bombs. Finally, learn what to do if you are ever exposed to nuclear fallout. x
  • 6
    The Liquid-Drop Model of the Nucleus
    Now open the hood to see how the nucleus works. Start simple with a hydrogen atom, which has a nucleus of one proton orbited by a single electron. Build from there, adding neutrons and more protons, forging elements and their isotopes and seeing how the nucleus behaves much like a liquid drop. Then use the Fermi gas model to refine your understanding of nuclear structure. x
  • 7
    The Quantum Nucleus and Magic Numbers
    High school chemistry introduces students to the atomic shell model, which describes the distribution of electrons around the nucleus. In this lecture, learn the analogous nuclear shell model and the magic numbers that constitute full shells of protons and neutrons within the nucleus. Also, discover how an entire nucleus can ring like a bell or spin like a top. x
  • 8
    Particle Accelerators: Schools of Scattering
    Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, where Professor Weinstein and his colleagues use high-energy electron beams to probe the structure of the nucleus. Dr. Weinstein also explains other types of particle accelerators and their purposes, including the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. x
  • 9
    Detecting Subatomic Particles
    Subatomic particles are inconceivably small and move unbelievably fast. So how are they detected? To learn the ropes, go into an instrument facility where detectors are built. Begin with the simple circuitry of a Geiger counter, invented in the 1920s, and graduate to state-of-the-art tools that are millions of times more sensitive, including scintillators and wire chambers. x
  • 10
    How to Experiment with Nuclear Collisions
    Continue your tour of Jefferson Lab by learning how scientists design an experiment, get it approved, run it, and then analyze the results. Discover why interpreting the outcome of nuclear collisions is like reconstructing car crashes. One tool relies on the shock wave produced by particles moving faster than light, which is possible in mediums other than a vacuum. x
  • 11
    Scattering Nucleons in Singles or in Pairs
    Focus on specific experiments at Jefferson Lab's largest research hall, where mammoth machines smash electrons into nuclei and measure the scattered electrons and other particles. The goal is to understand the quantum orbits in nuclear shells. Professor Weinstein shows how nuclear physicists think in designing experiments to peel away the layers of the nuclear onion. x
  • 12
    Sea Quarks, Gluons, and the Origin of Mass
    Discover the fundamental particles that make protons and neutrons tick—namely, quarks and gluons. Learn why quarks are never seen in isolation and why the mass of ordinary valence quarks (three per proton or neutron) accounts for only a tiny fraction of their mass. The answer to both riddles lies in “sea quarks,” the swarm of quark-antiquark pairs within protons and neutrons, which can be infinite in number. x
  • 13
    Nuclear Fusion in Our Sun
    Study the fusion reactions that take place inside the Sun. First, consider the formidable barrier that hydrogen nuclei must overcome to fuse into helium. Then, see how the mass and temperature of a star govern the types of reactions it can support. One product of stellar reactions is neutrinos, ghostly particles that pass through the Earth (and us) in colossal numbers. x
  • 14
    Making Elements: Big Bang to Neutron Stars
    See how hydrogen, helium, and a few other light nuclei were forged in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang. Then, trace the formation of heavier nuclei in the interiors of stars, in supernova explosions, and in the collisions of neutron stars. Special attention is paid to the sequence of reactions and the required conditions that gave us the complete periodic table of elements. x
  • 15
    Splitting the Nucleus
    The discovery of the neutron in 1932 led to the insight that neutrons can incite certain heavy elements to fission (break apart), releasing more neutrons and a prodigious amount of energy. In this lecture, lay the groundwork for understanding nuclear weapons and nuclear power by investigating nuclei that are prone to fission, how to initiate fission, and the “daughter nuclei” that result. x
  • 16
    Nuclear Weapons Were Never "Atomic" Bombs
    Often called “atomic” bombs, the fission weapons first exploded in 1945 are in fact nuclear bombs—as are the fusion-boosted “H-bombs” developed a few years later. Study how these devices work, the difficulty of producing their reactive material, and techniques for enhancing their yield and miniaturizing warheads. Also, understand why the search for peaceful applications of nuclear weapons proved fruitless. x
  • 17
    Harnessing Nuclear Chain Reactions
    Learn the fundamentals of nuclear reactor design, which has the task of sustaining nuclear reactions at a controlled rate in order to boil water, produce steam, and drive a generator. Explore why a nuclear reactor can't explode like a bomb, and consider pluses and minuses of the most common reactor designs in use. x
  • 18
    Nuclear Accidents and Lessons Learned
    Under specific circumstances, it has been possible for a nuclear reactor to fail catastrophically. Revisit the serious nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, and Fukushima in Japan, drawing lessons on the fallibility of safety features and human operators. Track the cascading sequence of failures in each accident, leading to core meltdown and radiation release. Consider the health effects, which were severe for emergency workers at Chernobyl. x
  • 19
    The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Advanced Reactors
    Explore the current state of fission power, now in its third generation since the dawn of the nuclear age, with a fourth generation in the works. Today's nuclear plants are designed to produce power more cheaply, more safely, with less waste, and less risk of proliferation than earlier designs. Survey the latest technology, from advanced light water reactors to molten salt and thorium reactors. x
  • 20
    Nuclear Fusion: Obstacles and Achievements
    The holy grail of nuclear power is fusion, which has been tantalizingly out of reach for decades. Learn why fusion power is so desirable and so difficult to achieve. Study the different strategies for attaining a contained, self-sustaining thermonuclear reaction, focusing on the tokamak, which confines a high-temperature plasma in a powerful toroidal magnetic field. x
  • 21
    Killing Cancer with Isotopes, X-Rays, Protons
    High-energy radiation has been used against cancer tumors since the discovery of X-rays in 1895. Discover the powerful arsenal of radiation sources and procedures that radiation oncologists use today. Visit the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute to look at a technique that targets cancer cells with remarkable precision, while sparing the surrounding tissues. x
  • 22
    Medical Imaging: CT, PET, SPECT, and MRI
    The ability of radiation to penetrate the body and chart density and metabolic activity has led to a wide range of tools for medical imaging, including mammograms, PET scans, CT scans, bone-density tests, MRI, and other technologies. Learn how these tools work; what they reveal; and when, if ever, the doses of radiation might pose a significant risk. x
  • 23
    Isotopes as Clocks and Fingerprints
    The steady rate at which unstable isotopes decay, known as their half-life, makes them ideal for dating objects. Identify the radioactive isotopes best-suited for establishing age, such as carbon-14 for organic remains from human history and uranium-238 for billion-year-old geological formations. Also, see how stable isotopes can be used for fraud detection and studying ancient climates. x
  • 24
    Viewing the World with Radiation
    Finish the course by surveying the many uses of radiation on Earth and beyond. Passive detectors identify radioactive contamination and clandestine nuclear bomb tests. Cosmic rays can be used to “X-ray” ancient buildings and learn the secrets of their construction. And, see why some scientists speculate that humans thrive on Earth thanks to an ancient bath of radiation from a supernova explosion. x

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Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 344-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 344-page printed course guidebook
  • The Periodic Table of Elements
  • Glossary
  • Timeline
  • A list of Nobel Laureates honored for their work in nuclear physics

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Your professor

Lawrence Weinstein

About Your Professor

Lawrence Weinstein, Ph.D.
Old Dominion University
Lawrence Weinstein is a Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University (ODU) and a researcher at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. He received his undergraduate degree from Yale University and his doctorate in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Weinstein’s research involves electron scattering to study the structure of the nucleus and proton. Among his many awards,...
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Nuclear Physics Explained is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not for a beginner I've taken a few courses from The Great Courses, and all, without exception, have been prefaced by the instructor providing a broad outline of what will be covered in the lectures. Until this one. This professor did not even bother to introduce himself, but began with a rapid explanation of atomic structure, the Periodic Table, Isotopes, nuclides, and their compositions in charts containing them, all within about five minutes. If one already has at least a basic understanding of what this course is supposed to cover, then it might be beneficial, but unless that is the case, I definitely do not recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect This is one of the best course from the Teaching Company. Truly a "great" course. This professor not only knows the subject, but knows how to teach
Date published: 2019-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nuclear Physics Explained Great course, very well presented. Enjoyable and informative.
Date published: 2019-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Information Rich, High Value Course I found this course extremely valuable. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of nuclear physics and its applications. Notable points: 1. There is a ton of good information presented, and it sometimes does go quickly, such that you might not soak it all up the first time. But that’s why you have it recorded. I think if you pick up 100% of a course the first time through, it’s too easy and less valuable. I’m watching it for a second time now. 2. In addition to basics, the aspects average people are interested in are covered – human exposure to radiation, nuclear bombs, how the sun and stars work, nuclear energy and accidents, nuclear medicine, and “nuclear detective work". 3. Prof. Weinstein actually walks you through quite a few calculations, which are just arithmetic and simple algebra. This enables you to make similar calculations on different scenarios for yourself with confidence. 4. The guidebook is the most detailed I’ve encountered, with quiz questions and answers for every lecture, which gives another resource for learning. Very useful! 5. Prof. Weinstein is highly knowledgeable and engaging, and even tosses in dry humor from time to time. I am an electrical engineer, not a physicist, but I stay current with scientific developments. If you have little to no scientific background, this course will likely overwhelm you. Maybe start with something more basic before this, and even after that you will probably be watching many of these lectures multiple times. But if you want to learn and you stick with it, you will be rewarded.
Date published: 2019-03-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Haven't started yet. I have purchased about 30 Great Courses. I am planning on using them in my retirement. But the courses I have completed are top shelf! I was planning on attending college courses, but these Great Courses are much more convenient and presented by TOP professors. The prices are well worth the purchase.
Date published: 2019-01-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great Material, Painful Presentation. Nuclear Physics Explained is packed with good and wonderful material. Unfortunately, the presentation is uninspiring at best. Think of a machine gun blast, with no inflections, pauses to consider, or clear emphasis on important points. It makes for great material to sleep through. This review saddens me. It is wonderful material.
Date published: 2019-01-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from It was a professional and well done course… But it was too technical for me and way over my head. It seems more a college level of physics class with a lot of formulas and math.
Date published: 2018-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very deep, and very interesting I really enjoyed Prof Weinstein's course on nuclear physics, learning a lot about leading-edge research in the field. He's a good lecturer who clearly loves the material. I particularly like and appreciate the video segments from various parts of the Thomas Jefferson National Laboratory. In these, Prof Weinstein explains the details of many of the exotic and amazingly complex instruments (many the size of buildings) that he and his colleagues have designed to learn more about the most minute details of what's going on inside of, say, protons and neutrons. I'm fairly advanced already in the material but found it amazing that, for example, we can learn about the distribution of quarks and their interactions inside the proton and neutron. Just like with the distribution of electrons around the atomic nucleus, there's a shell model inside the nucleus. The discussion of isotopes, the standard model, how all elements past hydrogen and helium were later created after the Big Bang, so on are all quite well done and very informative. My one caution about this course is that while there's a lot in it for beginners, there's also a lot that a beginner in the field would miss. For example, there's one early lecture that speak about quantum tunneling; that's a deep and interesting topic all on its own but it's never explained - you just have to get the gist of it from past education to understand the point. Still, I recommend this to anyone interested in nuclear physics and the wonder and excitement of modern experimental physics.
Date published: 2018-12-22
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