Nuclear Physics on the Wall

Tired of that old Matisse print? Try the spiffy new nuclear physics poster. The giant chart aims to bring the world of nuclear energy, radioactive decay, and quark-gluon plasma to high school classrooms.

The project got going after scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California had some eye-opening discussions with area high school students. "They had almost no knowledge of things we were doing," says LBNL physicist Howard Matis. So with the help of the Contemporary Physics Education Project (a nonprofit group that promotes science literacy), Matis and some 50 other physicists, chemists, and educators sat down to devise a chart and accompanying guidebook for teachers. The group labored for 3 years to achieve wording that they feel is both simple and accurate. "It was a long, long project," Matis says.

The chart describes, among other things, how a primordial soup of quarks and other particles cooled to form protons and neutrons, lists all the ways to stick protons and neutrons together to make atomic nuclei, and discusses how the principles of nuclear physics are used in power plants and smoke detectors. The group showed draft versions of the chart to students in some 250 schools worldwide before settling on a final design.

The large version of the chart goes for $20. Matis hopes it will become a permanent fixture in classrooms, if not in scientists' homes. Matis has hung a chart in a place of honor above his family's ping-pong table. "My wife wouldn't allow it in the living room," he concedes.