Atomic Engineering


The term atomic physics is often associated with nuclear power and nuclear bombs, due to the synonymous use of atomic and nuclear in Standard English. However, physicists distinguish between atomic physics-which deals with the atom as a system comprising of a nucleus and electrons, and nuclear physics-which considers atomic nuclei alone.

As with many scientific fields, strict delineation can be highly contrived and atomic physics is often considered in the wider context of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Physics research groups are usually so classified.

Nuclear engineering is the application of the breakdown of atomic nuclei and/or other sub-atomic physics, based on the principles of nuclear physics. It includes, but is not limited to, the interaction and maintenance of nuclear fission systems and components - specifically, nuclear reactors, nuclear power plants, and/or nuclear weapons. The field may also include the study of nuclear fusion, medical and other applications of (generally ionizing) radiation, nuclear safety, heat/thermodynamics transport, nuclear fuel and/or other related (e.g., waste disposal) technology, nuclear proliferation, and the effect of radioactive waste or radioactivity in the environment.


The majority of fields in physics can be divided between theoretical work and experimental work and atomic physics is no exception. It is usually the case, but not always, that progress goes in alternate cycles from an experimental observation, through to a theoretical explanation followed by some predictions which may or may not be confirmed by experiment, and so on. Of course, the current state of technology at any given time can put limitations on what can be achieved experimentally and theoretically so it may take considerable time for theory to be refined. Clearly the earliest step towards atomic physics was the recognition that matter was composed of atoms, in the modern sense of the basic unit of a chemical element. This theory was developed by the British chemist and physicist John Dalton in the 18th century. At this stage, it wasn't clear what atoms were although they could be described and classified by their properties (in bulk) in a periodic table.

The true beginning of atomic physics is marked by the discovery of spectral lines and attempts to describe the phenomenon, most notably by Joseph von Fraunhofer. The study of these lines led to the Bohr atom model and to the birth of quantum mechanics itself. In seeking to explain atomic spectra an entirely new mathematical model of matter was revealed. As far as atoms and their electron shells were concerned, not only did this yield a better overall description, i.e. the atomic orbital model, but it also provided a new theoretical basis for chemistry (quantum chemistry) and spectroscopy. Since the Second World War, both theoretical and experimental fields have advanced at a great pace. This can be attributed to progress in computing technology which has allowed bigger and more sophisticated models of atomic structure and associated collision processes. Similar technological advances in accelerators, detectors, magnetic field generation and lasers have greatly assisted experimental work.

Career Prospects

It is predicted that profitable job opportunities are available for nuclear engineers because the small quantity of nuclear engineering graduates are expected to equal the number of job openings. Due to the fact that nuclear engineering is a relatively small occupation, the predicted increase in employment will open some avenues for jobs but job opportunities will mainly be a result of retirement and transfers of existing engineers. In 2002, nuclear engineers were employed in around 16,000 jobs. Half of these were in the utilities sector, one-quarter were employed by professional, scientific, and technical services firms, and 14 percent were hired by the Federal Government. A large number of nuclear engineers employed by the Federal Government work as civilians. In the U.S. Navy, while the remaining were employed by the U.S. Department of Energy. Nuclear engineers will be in demand in order to run the existing nuclear plants, industries and research. Also, nuclear engineers will be expected to continue R&D activities, mainly to develop future nuclear power sources. Nuclear technology, especially in defense related areas, will also attract nuclear engineering graduates.

Famous Personalities

Troy Barbee (Father of "Atomic Engineering")

Troy W. Barbee Jr. spent part of his youth knocking heads on the football gridiron and rugby pitch, but he found his true calling on a much smaller playing field. A senior materials scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Barbee is a pioneer in the now hot new field of nanotechnology in which scientists manipulate materials a few atoms at a time. In the mid-1970s, as laboratory director of the Center for Materials Research at Stanford University, Barbee wrote one of the first papers describing what he termed "atomic engineering in its infancy." Since then he has been working to perfect and apply the technique to the creation of unique multilayer materials with properties that can't be found in nature.

Among the goals Barbee's multilayer materials have already reached:

• Advanced multilayer optics that provided the first detailed pictures of the sun's magnetic corona, and are now enabling the creation of the next generation of ground- and space-based telescopes, computer chips and hard disk drives

• Diagnostic tools and control systems that support the development of the world's most powerful lasers and the reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile

• X-ray interferometers to study colliding plasmas, essential in the development of nuclear fusion and its promise of unlimited energy

• Revolutionary "NanoFoil´┐Ż" technology that can solder heat-sensitive materials at low temperatures. "Troy's passion for creating new materials technologies is intoxicating," says Timothy Weihs, a former Livermore postdoctoral researcher in Barbee's laboratory who went on to help found the company that developed NanoFoil. "He can fill a room with his enthusiasm and his drive. He's simply very gifted at making new materials."

Edward Teller

Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb,is best known for his work on the American nuclear program, specifically as a member of the Manhattan Project during World War II, his role in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and his long association with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (which he co-founded and served as a director). Teller was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary to a Jewish family. He left Hungary in 1926. The political climate and revolutions in Hungary during his youth instilled a lingering animosity for both Communism and Fascism in Teller. When he was a young student, his leg was severed in a streetcar accident in Munich, requiring him to wear a prosthetic foot and leaving him with a life-long limp.

Teller graduated in chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe and received his Ph.D. in physics under Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig. Teller's Ph.D. dissertation dealt with one of the first accurate quantum mechanical treatments of the hydrogen molecular ion. In 1930 he befriended Russian physicists George Gamow and Lev Landau. Teller's life-long friendship with a Czech physicist, George Placzek, was very important for Teller's scientific and philosophical development. It was Placzek who arranged a summer stay in Rome with Enrico Fermi for young Teller, thus orienting his scientific career in nuclear physics.

In his early career, Teller made contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy (the Jahn-Teller and Renner-Teller effects), and surface physics. His extension of Fermi's theory of beta decay (in the form of the so-called Gamow-Teller transitions) provided an important stepping stone in the applications of this theory. The Jahn-Teller effect and the BET theory have retained their original formulation and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry.Teller also made contributions to Thomas-Fermi theory, the precursor of density functional theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis and Marshall Rosenbluth, Teller co-authored a paper which is a standard starting point for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to statistical mechanics.

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