James Vary, Physics and Astronomy, (515) 294-8894
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa -- A new theoretical tool, developed by a team of physicists including one from Iowa State University, could lead to a better understanding of basic physical properties of the nucleus of an atom. The work could have widespread importance and help scientists explain some of the puzzles they encounter in nature.

The team includes James Vary, an ISU professor of physics and astronomy and director of the International Institute for Theoretical and Applied Physics; Petr Navratil of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; and Bruce Barrett of the University of Arizona, Tucson. They published their work in the June 19 issue of Physical Review Letters.

The paper, "Properties of Carbon 12 in the Ab Initio Nuclear Shell Model," details a theory that they have developed to explain some of the mysteries physicists confront when dealing with the interactions of the particles inside the nucleus of the carbon-12 atom.

The "ab initio" (meaning from the beginning) model will help guide scientists as they explore some of the most exotic and enigmatic behaviors exhibited inside a nucleus.

"This creates a new tool," Vary said. "We are now able, after decades of work by many people, to do very precise calculations to compare with the experimental results. We will be able to explain some of the exotic behavior experimentalists encounter at the nuclear level."

For example, Vary wants to apply the "tool" to a concept called parity violations. Parity is the idea that if you do an experiment one way and obtain data, then if you do a similar, or mirror of that experiment, you should obtain a mirror copy of the data. But in parity violations, that symmetry breaks down at the most minute levels -- at the subatomic scale -- resulting in dissimilar data from similar experiments. The "ab initio" tool can be used to explain why, Vary said.

Such work could lead to solving the mystery of why we do not seem to have a universe with a balance between matter and antimatter. It also might be used to analyze experiments sensitive to the mass of the neutrino, which itself could explain why the universe seems to exhibit stronger gravitational effects than the observed matter would support.

"The practical applications of this work is to unravel the basic secrets of nature," Vary added, "to learn why nature behaves this way, and to pin that understanding down to a very fundamental level."

The research was supported in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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