Shop Windows to the Universe

Our Glaciers: Then and Now activity kit helps you see the changes taking place in glaciers around the world. See all our activity kits and classroom activities.
Scientists study subatomic particles by examining the telltale trails, such as those shown here, their passage leaves behind in a bubble chamber. This image shows the first detection of a neutrino.
Click on image for full size
Argonne National Laboratory

Atomic Physics & Particle Physics

Atoms and the minute particles from which they are made strongly influence the nature of many phenomena that play out their roles on astronomical scales. The fields of atomic physics and particle physics provide many valuable insights into the life cycles of stars, the forms of spaceborne radiation, and the way we can use spectra to study distant objects.

The discipline of atomic physics concerns itself with atoms, the particles from which atoms are made, and the various energy states that atoms can take on. The tiny, dense nucleus of an atom is made up of protons and neutrons. Clouds of electrons, less than a thousandth the size of the nucleons, buzz around the nucleus in a complex array of energy states.

Particle physics delves into scales even smaller than the atom as it sheds light on the worlds of subatomic physics. When atoms are torn apart, usually in the presence of large amounts of energy, subatomic particles come out to play. Some are familiar, such as protons, neutrons, and electrons; others are more exotic, bearing strange names like muon, neutrino, baryon, meson, and the elusive quark. Plasmas, such as the "soup" of electrons and protons that makes up the solar wind, and many of the most dangerous forms of radiation, such as cosmic rays, are collections of subatomic particles.

The "laws" of physics at atomic and subatomic scales are so different from those we observe in our "normal" daily experiences that physicists had to invent a whole new field to describe them. The discipline of quantum mechanics predicts the strange behaviors found in the worlds of the very small. In the realms of quantum physics, the distinctions between particles and waves disappear, we lose our ability to define the locations of objects in favor of probabilistic descriptions of where particles are likely to be, and the mere act of observing a phenomenon can fundamentally alter its behavior.

Last modified September 12, 2008 by Randy Russell.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, as well as books on science education!

Windows to the Universe Community



You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


Radiation comes in two basic types: electromagnetic radiation transmitted by photons, and particle radiation consisting of electrons, protons, alpha particles, and so forth. Electromagnetic radiation,...more


The neutrino is an extremely light (and possibly massless) neutral particle. The neutrino belongs to the family of leptons, the particles that interact through the so-called weak force. For this reason...more

The Plasma State

Plasma is known as the fourth state of matter (the first three states being solid, liquid and gas).Matter in ordinary conditions on Earth has electrons that orbit around the atomic nucleus. The electrons...more

Particle Radiation

One main type of radiation, particle radiation, is the result of subatomic particles hurtling at tremendous speeds. Protons, cosmic rays, and alpha and beta particles are some of the most common types...more

Can living cells repair damage from radiation?

Whether or not a cell can repair itself after being damaged by radiation depends on the type of damage to the cell's DNA. Type of Damage Prospects for DNA Repair Single strand break in the DNA Can usually...more

How can radiation damage a living cell?

High frequency radiation or fast moving particles plow into a living cell with enough energy to knock electrons free from molecules that make up the cell. These molecules with missing electrons are called...more

Atomic Physics & Particle Physics

Atoms and the minute particles from which they are made strongly influence the nature of many phenomena that play out their roles on astronomical scales. The fields of atomic physics and particle physics...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA