The atomic nucleus is a very small but extremely dense core within the atom. Comparing the size of the average nucleus to the size of the average atom is like comparing the length of a meter-stick to a distance of 100 km. Nevertheless, the nucleus carries essentially all of the atomic mass. To understand the structure of the atomic nucleus is the primary goal of nuclear physics. Furthermore, we want to understand the nature of the forces that keep the constituents of the nucleus (the proton and the neutron) together in such a small space. This has been one of the most challenging problems in the whole history of physics. Still today open questions remain concerning the nature of the nuclear force.
The value of studying nuclear physics is both intrinsic and extrinsic. On the one hand, basic research in nuclear physics is essential for our understanding of the structure of matter at a fundamental level. On the other hand, nuclear physics studies also have impact on other fields, such as astrophysics/cosmology. For instance, understanding the properties of hot and dense nuclear matter can help us understand the behavior of systems such as neutron stars and supernovae.
At the University of Idaho Physics Department, a group of nuclear theoreticians develop mathematical and computational models of the nuclear force and/or nuclear reactions mechanisms. These models are then tested against experimental data measured at accelerator facilities around the world.