Mission Statement

The mission of the Nuclear Physics (NP) program is to discover, explore, and understand all forms of nuclear matter. The fundamental particles that compose nuclear matter - quarks and gluons - are relatively well understood, but exactly how they fit together and interact to create different types of matter in the universe is still not fully explained. To solve this mystery, NP supports experimental and theoretical research - along with the development and operation of particle accelerators and advanced technologies - to create, detect, and describe the different forms and complexities of nuclear matter that can exist in the universe, including those that are no longer found naturally.


It is one of the enduring mysteries of the universe: What, really, is matter? What are the units that matter is made of, and how do they fit together to give matter the properties we observe? These are questions which philosophers have wrestled with for millennia. Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus suggested that if one were to divide matter into smaller and smaller pieces, one would eventually be left with indivisible entities called atoma. It was not until the 1800s, however, that scientists had solid evidence that such atoma - or atoms - actually existed, and it was not until the early 1900s that techniques were developed that made it possible to examine their composition.

In 1909 the physicist Ernest Rutherford fired a beam of helium ions at a thin sheet of gold foil and measured how the ions scattered, showing that each atom has at its center a small, dense, positively charged core, which Rutherford named the nucleus. Scientists later determined that the nucleus is surrounded by a cloud of tiny negatively charged electrons that account for less than 0.1% of the total mass of the atom. Upon closer inspection, researchers found that the nucleus was composed of even smaller particles: the positively charged proton and the electrically neutral neutron. Research showed that protons and neutrons are bound in the nucleus by a fundamental force named the strong force because it is far stronger than either gravity or electromagnetism, although it operates on smaller distance scales. As scientists delved further into the properties of the proton and neutron, they discovered that each proton and neutron is composed of three tiny particles called quarks. Quarks are bound together by yet other particles called gluons, which are believed to be the generators of the strong force. One of the major goals of nuclear physics is to understand precisely how quarks and gluons bind together to create protons, neutrons, and other hadrons (the generic name for particles composed of quarks) and, in turn, to determine how all hadrons fit together to create nuclei and other types of matter.

The quest to understand matter takes place through both theory and experiment, with both being necessary to develop a full understanding of the properties and behavior of matter. In the theoretical approach, scientists have developed a precise mathematical description of how the quarks and gluons in nuclear matter interact, referred to as Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD). On the experimental side, scientists accumulate a great deal of experimental data about the behavior of quarks and gluons as well as protons, neutrons, and nuclei in a variety of settings. Unlike Rutherford's table-top experiment, most of the experiments today require large facilities spanning acres. These particle accelerators slam bits of matter into each other, and scientists observe the results. The main differences from Rutherford's time are the ability to accelerate the bits of matter to much higher speeds, the variety of types of matter that can be used, and the sophistication of the instruments used in the observations. The careful integration and comparison of experimental measurements with theoretical calculations provides both insight into the behavior of matter and the information needed to test the validity of theoretical models.

Nuclear physics seeks to understand matter in all of its manifestations not just the familiar forms of matter we see around us, but also such exotic forms as the matter that existed in the first moments after the creation of the universe and the matter that exists today inside neutron stars and to understand why matter takes on the particular forms that it does. Nuclear physics has come to focus on three broad yet tightly interrelated areas of inquiry. These three areas are described in The Frontiers of Nuclear Science , a long range plan for nuclear science released in 2007 by the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC). The plan represents a consensus within the nuclear science community about compelling scientific thrusts. The three frontiers the long range plan identified are:

Quantum Chromodynamics

The focus of this frontier is to develop a complete understanding of how quarks and gluons assemble themselves into the various forms of matter and, as part of that process, to search for yet undiscovered forms of matter. While nuclear scientists want to know how quarks and gluons assemble to form matter, they also want to understand what happens when nucleons melt, QCD predicts that nuclear matter can change its state in somewhat the same way that ordinary matter can change from solid to liquid to gas. This can happen when nucleons are compressed well beyond the density of atomic nuclei, as in the core of a neutron star, or when they are heated to the kind of extreme temperatures found in the early universe. One of the most startling recent discoveries is the creation of a new form of matter, thought to have existed in only moments after the birth of the universe under conditions of extreme temperature and density, and the fact that it behaves as an almost perfect liquid instead of a dilute gaseous plasma as originally hypothesized.

Nuclei and Nuclear Astrophysics

Nuclear physicists seek to understand how protons and neutrons combine to form atomic nuclei and how these nuclei have arisen during the 13.7 billion years since the birth of the cosmos. The forces that bind protons and neutrons together into nuclei are immensely strong, with the result that nuclear processes such as nuclear fusion and fission can release huge amounts of energy. Looking inward, nuclear scientists seek a comprehensive description of the behavioral characteristics of multi-nucleon systems and marginally stable exotic nuclei not naturally found on earth. Looking outward, nuclear scientists seek to understand the nuclear processes that have shaped the cosmos, from the origin of the elements, the evolution of stars, and the detonation of supernovae, to the structure of neutron stars and the nature of matter at extreme densities. Nuclear scientists have taken great strides in nuclear astrophysics, for example by decreasing the limits of the age of the universe by about one billion years through studies of the reaction cross sections that control hydrogen burning in stars.

Fundamental Symmetries and Neutrinos

Although the strong force plays the dominant role in the nucleus, it is not the only force that nuclear physicists must consider. Because protons (and quarks) are electrically charged, electromagnetism comes into play in such circumstances as proton-proton interactions, and the weak force is responsible for the transformation of protons into neutrons and vice versa. The three forces have been unified into a single theory, referred to as the Standard Model, which does an excellent job of explaining the interactions of the various fundamental particles. However, certain inadequacies of that theory have led physicists to begin developing a New Standard Model. In particular, nuclear physicists are interested in developing a better understanding of the fundamental properties of the neutron and of the neutrino, the nearly undetectable fundamental particle produced by the weak interaction that was first indirectly detected in nuclear beta decay. One of the most surprising results to come out of neutrino studies in the past many years was the discovery that electron neutrinos produced in the Sun are changing into a different type of neutrino, thus explaining the puzzling shortage of events seen in previous solar neutrino detectors and confirming models for solar energy production.