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Sir James Chadwick, born 120 years ago on October 20, 1891, made one of the most significant

discoveries of our age by proving the existence of neutrons.

The September installment of Nuclear Pioneers explored the artificial radioactivity research of
Irne and Frdric Joliot-Curie, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on
December 10, 1935. A misinterpretation of data perhaps cost the Joliot-Curies an earlier Nobel
Prize, but instead led to James Chadwick taking the Nobel podium two days after the Joliot-
Curies, on December 12, 1935, to receive the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the neutron.

Atomic Mass Mystery
When Ernest Rutherford discovered the proton in 1918, scientists at the time might have thought
that they had finally figured out atomic structure once and for all. Negatively-charged electrons,
orbiting a tiny atomic nucleus composed of positively-charged protons, like a miniature solar
systemthis model explained atoms being electrically neutral, using only protons and electrons,
the two fundamental atomic particles known at the time.
However, it was also well-known that atomic mass is generally twice the atomic number (i.e., the
number of protons), and that almost all the mass of an atom is concentrated in the nucleus. What
could account for all this additional mysterious mass?

Nuclear Electrons?
The theory at the time was that there were nuclear electrons in the atomic nucleus, along with
additional protons. The extra protons were thought to provide the extra atomic mass, while the
additional electrons would cancel out their positive charge, leaving the atom electrically neutral.
Eventually, however, calculations using Heisenbergs uncertainty principle showed it was not
possible for electrons to be contained in the nucleus.

There were other ideas. Ernest Rutherford in 1921 postulated a particle called the neutron,
having a similar mass as a proton but electrically neutral. Rutherford imagined a paired proton
and electron somehow joined in one particle. One major problem with Rutherfords neutron
theorynot much evidence.

Mysterious Gamma Radiation
Evidence was difficult to come by. Such a neutron would prove difficult to detect with 1920s
equipment. Detection methods of that day mainly relied on the electrical charges of particles
revealing their presencebut neutrons, having no electrical charge, would leave no trace.
In 1930, the physicists Walther Bothe and Herbert Becker bombarded beryllium with alpha
particles (helium nuclei) emitted from the radioactive element polonium, and they found that
the beryllium gave off an unusual, electrically neutral radiation. They interpreted this radiation
to be high-energy gamma rays (photons).
However, this radiation was more penetrating than any gamma radiation known. In 1932, Irne
and Frdric Joliot-Curie performed experiments with this radiation, and showed that if it fell on
paraffin or other hydrogen-containing compound, it could eject protons with very high energy
from that substance.

The Compton Effect
The Joliot-Curie radiation discovery was amazing, because photons have no mass. It was asking
quite a lot for a massless particle to eject relatively heavy protons. It was well known that photons
could strike a metal surface and eject electrons (as occurs in the then-recently-discovered
Compton Effect, proving the particle nature of light) and the Joliot-Curies believed something
similar was happening in their experiments.
But protons are 1,836 times heavier than electronsand that much harder to budge.
Nevertheless, the Joliot-Curies stuck to their interpretation that high-energy photons were
striking the hydrogen atoms in paraffin to eject protons.

How to Detect a Neutron
James Chadwick was working at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge at that time. The lab was
directed by Ernest Rutherford, and reportedly when Chadwick relayed the Joliot-Curie results and
interpretation to Rutherford, he exclaimed I do not believe it!
Chadwick himself was certainly suspicious. He immediately repeated the experiments, using
many different elements as radiation targets besides paraffin. By comparing the energies of
particles ejected from all these various targets, Chadwick was able to prove that the radiation
causing the ejected particles was much more energetic than could be accounted for by photons.
Instead, the range and power of the radiation could be accounted for quite easily if it consisted
of particles having the same mass as protons. What really occurred when one bombarded
beryllium with alpha particles, Chadwick explained, was the formation of a carbon-12 nucleus
and the emission of a neutron. Formation of a carbon-13 nucleus with the emission of a photon,
as the Joliot-Curies had postulated, could not provide sufficient energy for the scattering pattern
and energies of ejected particles from Chadwicks various targets.

Why Neutrons?
Neutrons are necessary within an atomic nucleus because they bind with protons via the strong
nuclear force; protons are unable to bind with each other directly because their mutual
electromagnetic repulsion is stronger than the strong force. Neutrons keep the atomic nucleus
from flying apart, one of the features that allows for atoms heavier than hydrogen, thus making
our universe much more interesting than one would otherwise expect.

Its hard to imagine a more momentous event than Chadwicks discovery of neutrons. Radiation
experiments at that time used helium nuclei, which are electrically charged and therefore
repelled by electrical forces. These electrical forces become quite considerable close to the nuclei
of heavier atoms, which are loaded with many protons (and neutrons). However, neutrons do
not need to overcome any electrical barrier to penetrate (and split) the nucleus of even the
heaviest, most-proton-charged atomic nucleus. After Chadwicks discovery, it was soon
postulated that neutrons could mediate a nuclear chain reaction, which eventually led to the
atomic bomb, and later to nuclear power production.