101 years ago, physicists made a critical discovery we still don’t understand

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Nobel laureate Otto Hahn is credited with the discovery of nuclear fission. Fission is one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century, yet Hahn considered something else to be his best scientific work.

In 1921, he was studying radioactivity at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, Germany, when he noticed something he could not explain. One of the elements he was working with wasn’t behaving as it should have. Hahn had unknowingly discovered the first nuclear isomer, an atomic nucleus whose protons and neutrons are arranged differently from the common form of the element, causing it to have unusual properties. It took another 15 years of discoveries in nuclear physics to be able to explain Hahn’s observations.

We are two professors of nuclear physics who study rare nuclei, including nuclear isomers.

The most common place to find isomers is inside stars, where they play a role in the nuclear reactions that create new elements. In recent years, researchers have begun to explore how isomers can be put to use for the benefit of humanity. They are already used in medicine and could one day offer powerful options for energy storage in the form of nuclear batteries.

On the hunt for radioactive isotopes

In the early 1900s, scientists were on the hunt for new radioactive elements. An element is considered radioactive if it spontaneously releases particles in a process called radioactive decay. When this happens, the element is transformed over time into a different element.

At that time, scientists relied on three criteria to discover and describe a new radioactive element. One was to look at chemical properties — how the new element reacts with other substances. They also measured the type and energy of the particles released during the radioactive decay. Finally, they would measure how fast an element decayed. Decay speeds are described using the term half-life, which is the amount of time it takes for half of the initial radioactive element to decay into something else.


https://imgix.bustle.com/uploads/image/2022/6/2/3382ab35-828c-40b8-977c-dbbe0b163626-file-20220520-24-4pnisz.jpg?w=710&h=710&fit=max&auto=format%2CcompressThe discovery that the nucleus of an atom is made of both protons and neutrons allowed physicists to explain isotopes as well as uranium Z.PANGGABEAN/iStock via Getty Images



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