Nuclear Physics positively influences our daily lives, through advances in technology, health, and energy production, and yet is often misunderstood by the general public.
Nuclear physicists can have a huge positive impact when they actively engage the public and schools with their science. When done properly it can encourage interest, develop support for the research, fulfil obligations to funding bodies, support the government's science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) targets agenda and helps to drive recruitment into university departments. This article highlights the importance of Nuclear Physics to society, the range of current public engagement activities, and some advice on how to get involved.
Nuclear Physics as we know it today is almost a hundred years old. In 2009, we celebrate the centenary of the publication of the results of the Geiger-Marsden (or gold-foil) experiment performed at the University of Manchester.
This experiment had results which were completely unexpected at the time, namely if alpha particles were fired at a foil of metal then some were reflected right back at the source, but most passed straight through. This observation was later explained by Ernest Rutherford as pointing to the existence of a small dense positively-charged nucleus at the centre of the atom.
Much of the important early work took place in the UK, with the discovery of the neutron by Chadwick in 1932 and the first nuclear reaction induced by artificially accelerated ions by Cockcroft and Walton the same year.
In the UK, Nuclear Physics remains a strong area of fundamental research into the structure of our physical world. Nuclear reactions power stars, generating energy and forming the chemical elements we find in nature. Nuclear Physics helps us understand how the heavy elements are formed in the violent explosions of stars. UK Nuclear Physicists carry out their research at state-of-the-art facilities worldwide. Many advanced new facilities are planned where UK Nuclear Physicists are taking leading roles.
You don’t need to be on TV to have a positive impact! There are lots of opportunities to get involved in public engagement activities, such as Café Scientifique, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors (SEA) scheme, and the Researcher in Residence programme. Lots of universities have their own established outreach programmes – why not help out at one of their events? Or, if you have an idea, contact the STFC’s Public Engagement team – they will be able to advise you.
The UK Nuclear Physics groups carry out fundamental research, and this basic knowledge has important links to applications. These applications are of great value to the UK economy, from energy generation to defence, from industry to medicine. Thousands of lives are saved every year through the use radioisotopes in cancer treatments and in medical imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET).
Around half the highly-trained PhD students who graduate from our research groups find employment in the nuclear industries, where their skills are highly valued. UK Nuclear Physicists are committed to public engagement and the groups are active locally and nationally.