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What did James Chadwick do to "conclusively" confirm the existence of neutrons?
Question Date: 2001-10-15
Answer 1:

I didn't remember any of this so thanks for the opportunity to catch up on some science history!

James Chadwick and the Beryllium Rays
Rutherford predicted the existence of the neutron in 1920. Twelve years later, his assistant James Chadwick found it. Chadwick had been a student at Manchester University. After graduating in 1911, he stayed at the laboratory doing research for Rutherford.

In 1913, Chadwick went to Berlin, Germany, to work with Hans Geiger. The war broke out the following year. Because Chadwick was an Englishman, he was detained as a civilian prisoner of war. He was allowed to read books and talk to other physicists, but he could not do experiments.

In 1918, when the war ended, Chadwick returned to Manchester. He worked with Rutherford on the transmutation of the elements. In 1919, Rutherford went to Cambridge to become director of the Cavendish Laboratory. Chadwick went with him.

At Cambridge, Chadwick searched for the neutron. He tried in 1923, but did not find it. He tried again in 1928, with no success. In 1930, the German physicists Walther Bothe and Herbert Becker noticed something odd. When they shot alpha rays at beryllium (atomic number 4) the beryllium emitted a neutral radiation that could penetrate 200 millimeters of lead. In contrast, it takes less than one millimeter of lead to stop a proton.

Bothe and Becker assumed the neutral radiation was high-energy gamma rays.
Marie Curie's daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, and Irene's husband, Frederic, put a block of paraffin wax in front of the beryllium rays. They observed high-speed protons coming from the paraffin. They knew that gamma rays could eject electrons from metals. They thought the same thing was happening to the protons in the paraffin. Chadwick said the radiation could not be gamma rays. To eject protons at such a high velocity, the rays must have an energy of 50 million electron volts. An electron volt is a tiny amount of energy, only enough to keep a 75-watt light bulb burning for a tenth of a trillionth of a second. The alpha particles colliding with beryllium nuclei could produce only 14 million electron volts.

The law of conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It certainly looked as if energy was being created along with the neutral radiation. Chadwick had another explanation for the beryllium rays. He thought they were neutrons. He set up an experiment to test his hypothesis.

Chadwick put a piece of beryllium in a vacuum chamber with some polonium. The polonium emitted alpha rays, which struck the beryllium. When struck, the beryllium emitted the mysterious neutral rays.

In the path of the rays, Chadwick put a target. When the rays hit the target, they knocked atoms out of it. The atoms, which became electrically charged in the collision, flew into a detector. Chadwick's detector was a chamber filled with gas. When a charged particle passed through the chamber, it ionized the gas molecules. The ions drifted toward an electrode. Chadwick measured the current flowing through the electrode. Knowing the current, he could count the atoms and estimate their speed. Chadwick used targets of different elements, measuring the energy needed to eject the atoms of each. Gamma rays could not explain the speed of the atoms. The only good explanation for his result was a neutral particle.

To prove that the particle was indeed the neutron, Chadwick measured its mass. He could not weigh it directly. Instead he measured everything else in the collision and used that information to calculate the mass. For his mass measurement, Chadwick bombarded boron with alpha particles. Like beryllium, boron emitted neutral rays. Chadwick placed a hydrogen target in the path of the rays. When the rays struck the target, protons flew out. Chadwick measured the velocity of the protons.

Using the laws of conservation of momentum and energy, Chadwick calculated the mass of the neutral particle. It was 1.0067 times the mass of the proton. The neutral radiation was indeed the long-sought neutron.

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