Nuclear Scientists Continue to Search for Undiscovered Isotopes

When you hear the term “radioactive” you likely think “bad news,” maybe along the lines of fallout from an atomic bomb.

But radioactive materials are actually used in a wide range of beneficial applications. In medicine, they routinely help diagnose and treat disease. Irradiation helps keep a number of foods free from insects and invasive pests. Archaeologists use them to figure out how old an artifact might be. And the list goes on.

So what is radioactivity?

It’s the spontaneous emission of radiation when an atom’s dense center—called its nucleus—transforms into a different one. Whether in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves called gamma rays, radiation transfers energy away from the atomic nucleus.

Through experiments, nuclear physicists have seen about 3,000 different kinds of nuclei to date. Current theories, though, predict the existence of about 4,000 more that have never yet been observed. Around the world, thousands of scientists, including me, continue to study these tiny constituents of matter, while governments spend billions of dollars on building powerful new machines that will produce more and more exotic nuclei—and maybe eventually more technologies that will further improve modern life.

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