Posted by: T. Boyd | July 14, 2009

Protons, Neutrons, and Such

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)

I was thrilled as a young graduate school student to get to work with a nuclear accelerator in a project to build a neutron detector. Unlike charged particles, such as protons and electrons, neutrons easily pass through the stainless steel walls of the vacuum chamber into the surrounding area. So the detector was placed on a stand about 6 feet away from the collision chamber. Thus only neutrons and gamma rays could reach the detector from the collisions

One big problem is that the detector was flooded with many more gamma rays than neutrons. But the flash of light produced by a neutron is slightly different from a gamma ray. Also gamma rays travel at the speed of light (since they are just high energy bundles of energy, or photons, like light, while neutrons cannot travel at that speed since they have mass.

The neutrons would travel the 6 feet in about 100 billionth’s of a second, much longer than gamma rays which would travel that distance in a mere 6 billionth’s of a second. The electronics, even in 1966 when I did this work, could use the time difference as well as the characteristics of the light flashes to filter out the gamma rays.

Neutrons are very strange. They cannot exist very long outside of a nucleus. They decay into protons and electrons in about 10 minutes in free space (actually that is their half-life – more about that sometime). And even though they have no charge, they will not stay with another neutron unless a proton is present. And, conversely, protons will not stay together unless neutrons are present.

Going further, we can see that nuclei are themselves strange. The number of protons and neutrons that a particular nucleus (an isotope) contains determines its stability, but not in a very logical manner. For example, stable hydrogen, which always has one proton, can have zero or one neutron, but two neutrons will make it unstable.

Helium, with two protons, is stable with one or two neutrons, but not three. As a person tries to predict the stability of an isotope as more protons and neutrons are added, he or she quickly finds great difficulty in doing so.

For instance, Beryllium with four protons, is stable with five or six neutrons, but not with only four neutrons. The pattern of nearby isotopes would seem to say that this nucleus ought to be stable with four of each.

For example, here is a list of stable (happy) and unstable (unhappy) arrangements:

Number of Number of   Stability        Name of Atom
protons   neutrons
   1         0       very stable        Hydrogen
   1         1       barely stable      Deuterium
   1         2       unstable           Tritium
`  2         0       very unstable      ---
   2         1       quite stable       Helium 3
   2         2       very stable        Helium 4
   2         3       very unstable      Helium 5
   3         2       unstable           Lithium 5
   3         3       stable             Lithium 6
   3         4       stable             Lithium 7
   4         3       unstable           Beryllium 7
   4         4       very unstable !!   Beryllium 8
   4         5       stable             Beryllium 9
   4         6       stable             Beryllium 10

The reason that Beryllium 8 is a surprise is because, being an even-even nucleus, it should be more stable than its siblings. For example a nearby isotope, Carbon 12, is very stable and prevalent on the earth, and it has 6 protons and 6 neutrons. And why should Tritium be less stable than Helium 3, with the latter having the protons repelling each other so strongly?

The atom is made up of a positively charged nucleus and the negatively charged electrons surrounding the nucleus. The force of attraction between unlike charges – as well as the repulsion between like charges – is called the electrostatic force can be described by a simple algebraic expression.

On the other hand, the nuclear force, which “glues” the neutrons and protons together in the nucleus is a puzzle. There has never been a simple explanation found for this mysterious force, actually called the “strong” nuclear force.  It requires advanced mathematics to give even an approximation of it. And the “weak” nuclear force is stranger still, requiring Einstein’s relativistic theory to even start understanding it. It is the force that causes the instabilities found in nuclei.

In all, there are 4 known fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetic, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. The first two have been adequately explained by laws that were discovered years ago by scientists, most notable of which were Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), and James Maxwell (1831-1879).

The universe is held together by these various forces, that, like the material of the universe, were created out of nothing. In Hebrews 1, the scripture says “He … holds all things together by the word of His power.” The inventor of the world knows how He did it. Someday we will know, but maybe not till we see Him face to face.



  1. New note: I just read these responses and couldn’t see how this relates to the article above, until I realized the responses are in order of latest first. My friend Jim started by asking about the 4 forces mentioned in the article.

    Note: Jim Bausch found the patent, etc., Patent and I read up on it and related topics. I am very skeptical about the underlying theory. For example, the “spin” of nucleons and other elementary particles, is not a mechanical spin at all (at least that is what I remember from quantum theory studies). It is a model that tries to make sense of the magnetic moment of these particles (see this article ). And isospin is just another quantum number not even related to magnetic effects.

    About the patent: I rode the train to D.C. for 10 years, and made friends with one of the patent office readers/judges, or whatever he was called. He told me they try to make sure an application is original and doesn’t infringe on another patent, and they try to eliminate fraud. However, the client does not have to demonstrate that it works. So gaining a patent on an idea doesn’t really support the idea’s validity.

    In this experiment by Wallace (the patent holder) and others like that, it would be very difficult to prove that something else, like air currents or mechanical vibration in the setup, was not the cause of the rotation of the disk initially at rest.

    I also discussed with Jim Bausch in separate communication that the DoD does not let these ideas die w/o investigation. For example, while working at the Naval Research Lab from ’96 – ’07, I followed the group there that was, and still is, very active in cold fusion research. And there is no secret that they are doing so – they publish the results openly.

    So I think that anti-gravity research also would be treated similarly. Even if it were to be classified, and if the experiments mentioned above would prove to be valid, I think word would leak out (or will eventually) and we would know about it.

    Just my opinion which definitely could be wrong. 🙂

  2. Still looking this up. When in grad. school, I heard a paper describing trying to determine if anti-electrons go up or down because of gravity. It was a very difficult experiment (Ph.D. research at Stanford U., I think). They were trying to contain a cloud of anti-electrons inside a vacuum chamber and measuring their drift characteristics.

    I don’t the results were conclusive. Something about the e-image in the walls also drifting to counteract the effect.

    No one knows if anti-particles are also anti-gravity or not, as far as I know.

  3. Boyd,

    I’ve heard of an experiment that might be classified as a manifestation of a separate force. (negative gravity)

    Two disks, each made of lead, are concentrically positioned very close to each other. When one of the disks is accelerated rotationally, the close disk will rotate in the opposite direction. I was told that the phenomena was predicted by Einstein. Have you heard of this experiment? Jim

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