The magic number is...34

David Steppenbeck with some of the gamma-ray detectors used in the experiment.
David Steppenbeck with some of the gamma-ray detectors used in the experiment.

A north Northumberland man has led research and made a discovery relating to the inner workings of atoms, described as ‘a major development’.

David Steppenbeck, who grew up in Alnwick, is now working at the University of Tokyo as a post-doctoral researcher in experimental nuclear physics.

His research explores the structures of unstable nuclei (the centre of an atom) using radioactive beams provided by the Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory at RIKEN Nishina Center.

In the 1940s, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Hans Jensen worked on a concept called magic numbers, for which they later won the Nobel Prize for Physics, which relates to the number of protons or neutrons needed in an atom for it to be particularly stable (meaning it has a spherical shape and is difficult to excite). Until recently, these magic numbers were thought to be common for all nuclei, but they can in fact change for unstable, radioactive nuclei.

And now, the team led by the former Duchess’s Community High School pupil has discovered a new magic number – 34 – in the nucleus calcium-54.

According to articles in Nature and Scientific American earlier this month, the discovery ‘overturns some of scientists’ previous notions about magic numbers and opens up a new line of inquiry for nuclear physics’.

David explained that further understanding on this topic will ‘play a crucial role in understanding astrophysical processes such as nucleosynthesis in stars (the process that creates new nuclei)’.

The discovery has been met with excitement and interest in the world of science.

Nuclear physicist Robert Janssens told Scientific American that it was a ‘major development’.

And Eric Scerri, a chemist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “The nuclear magic numbers are kind of giving way – the dogma begins to break down and the rules of the game have to be expanded. When you push things to a more extreme domain, new science comes out.”