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How a New "Species" of Oxygen is Challenging Our Understanding of Nuclear Physics

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Jeremy Elliot

Every model we have of the universe is wrong. Even classical mechanics, which is what brought us to the moon. New discoveries are constantly being made that challenge the way we view and experience the world. This year has been especially hard on theoretical physicists, with Fermilab measurements showing a discrepancy in a property of subatomic particles known as muons, and more recently, an international team of researchers uncovering a hole in nuclear physics.

That hole is oxygen-28, a much heavier variety of the element that fuels our bodies with every breath we take. The most common form, or isotope, of oxygen consists of eight protons and eight neutrons. Oxygen-28, however, consists of eight protons and twenty neutrons. This configuration was predicted to be one of the elusive “doubly magic” nuclei. Sadly there is no wizardry afoot, just an unusually high level of stability. If you’ve taken a chemistry class, you might remember that atoms are stable if they have their shells filled with eight electrons. Nuclear magic numbers are similar, nuclei are more stable if they have certain numbers of protons and neutrons. Or are they? Despite the prediction that the magic nucleus should be stable, it decayed after about a zeptosecond - that’s 0.0000000000000000000001 seconds (twenty-one zeroes).

This isn’t the first time we’ve caught oxygen isotopes acting strangely. In 2009, a team of researchers determined that oxygen-24 acted as if it had a doubly magic nucleus, even though it does not. Although these results may seem small and unimportant (probably because they have no economic or political significance), they pinpoint major flaws in our understanding of physical phenomena. These flaws shape the development of science as a whole, where one theory fails, a new one rises to take its place. It’s an exciting time for the world of physics, and you should expect to see more groundbreaking theories and discoveries in the next few years. Maybe one day you’ll see one of mine, but until then stay curious!

Kondo, Y., Achouri, N.L., Falou, H.A. et al. First observation of 28O. Nature 620, 965–970 (2023).

Cutts, E. (2023, September 14). Scientists finally detected oxygen-28. its instability surprised them. Science News.

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