Have you ever heard of “alpha decay paradox” ? Chances are slim if you weren’t a science student, more importantly a Physics student. The significance of this paradox is of as importance to a Physicist as it can be to a common man. The difference would lie in one’s perception of it. Let me first brief you on what this paradox is or was all about ? Yes it was solved way back in 1928 but till then it confounded everyone just like it may baffle you in sometime.
Uranium (238) , a radioactive element, on disintegration along with its daughter nuclei it also emits an alpha particle. Now when measured the energy of this alpha particle is found to be 4.2 MeV which means a particle of such energy is able to come out of the Uranium nucleus. Now on the other hand alpha particles, with energy of 9 MeV, from Polonium (212) are unable to penetrate close enough to Uranium’s nucleus because of repulsive Coulomb potential barrier. Now the paradox is that the energetic particles fail to cross the barrier from outside while on the other hand the lower energetic particles succeed in doing so from the inside. Looking this from the point of classical mechanics the behaviour is pretty much impossible. If a higher energy particle of 9 MeV can’t get through that clearly means that the barrier has a higher energy which must be overcome in order to get in or get out ! When this paradox was solved through wave mechanics the results of some calculations were very startling. Within these results lies a clue for everyone who is sensitive enough to sense it and get inspired.
It is found that the alpha particle emitted by the Uranium makes about 10*38 attempts in one second for 10*10 years !!! It is only then it succeeds in coming out. In philosophical terms that other alpha particle which had to go in had tried only once to get through the potential barrier. Does it surprise you any more ? The one who was weak went on trying no matter how long it took and ended up as a winner unlike the stronger one who tried to flex its muscles only once and faced an instant defeat. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Try ..fall…pick yourself up…try again and again and again till you cross that “potential barrier”. In our life that barrier always lies outside our comfort zone but… inside our effort zone so there is no reason why anything should be impossible. Remember it’s all about how we perceive things that determines their feasibility.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to George Gamow , R. Gurney and E. Condon who solved the alpha decay paradox. I am sure just like the alpha particle emitted by Uranium they must have persevered endless times. You will be amazed to know that all three of them solved this independently which means neither of them was aware of each other’s effort and yet in 1928 each of them succeeded in resolving the paradox. I think that would have been one of the best moments in the field of Nuclear Physics.
I guess that is all that I wanted to share. If it forced you to think about everything that I just said then I would consider my job done because refusal to think is the greatest crime that one can ever commit.