Boundstate Beta Decay
An addendum to Cognitive Dissonance : A Parable.
Early in my career I was asked to solve a Nuclear Physics conundrum that goes by the title, "Boundstate Beta Decay". First consider one type of beta decay:
- Beta Decay
- A neutron in the nucleus of an atom is transformed into a proton by the emission of a beta particle (really just an electron) and an anti-neutrino.
As a neutron ceases to exist a proton, an electron, and an anti-neutrino appear in its place. The electron, and anti-neutrino travel away from the original site of the neutron typically at large speeds, while the proton moves very slowly.
The conundrum starts with the observation that theoretically it should be possible for the beta particle to not make it out of the atom. That is, it should be possible for a neutron to transform into a proton (beta decay) but have the electron stay in the atom while the anti-neutrino zips away without being detected (as is usually the case).
The challenge is to explain how this process might be detected in the laboratory.
Conventional Philosopher's Answer:
The electron that is emitted by the neutron travels outward from the nucleus. As it interacts with the vacuum field (virtual photons) it slows down, as it becomes part of the cloud of electrons surrounding the nucleus, giving up kinetic energy to bremsstrahlung (literally Breaking Radiation). This bremsstrahlung will appear as soft x-rays emerging from the atom.
I am neither a Classical nor a Conventional Philosopher. The above analysis fails to properly acknowledge the quantum mechanical nature of the events it pretends to describe.
The conventional image of tiny marbles of various sizes transferring energy and momentum via wavelike interactions does not describe anything real. None of the atomic constituents do this. The best we can say is that as the decay occurs all constituents interact to result in the outcome described in the "Conventional Philosopher's Answer". While the calculation (to determine the probability of occurrence) uses the normal Feynman notation (think Diagrams) we must include all participating particles (this includes all the atomic electrons) to understand the real process. The conventional wisdom that nuclear processes are isolated from the rest of the atom are simply wrong. Ultimately, the anti-neutrino is only able to carry so much energy away from the atom, any excess must reside in a photon emitted from the atom as a whole.
Truth is stranger than fiction · · · and oh so much more interesting.