You may think “a-bomb” when you even read or hear the word “nuclear.” And yes, it was (and is) nuclear science that enabled countries to acquire nuclear weapons. But nuclear science opens doors to a whole lot more useful and peaceful applications.
First, some history.
Nuclear science is only about 100 years old. It pretty much began in the very late 19th century when a German scientist named Wilhelm Conrad Rogen discovered a type of energy that could pass through solid objects. He called it “X,” with “X” being a symbol for the unknown. (If he didn’t just give it a simple, non-egotistical name, you may imagine your dentist saying, “I think you’re due for some Wilhelm Conrad Rogen rays today.”) Immediately doctors began to use X-rays to see inside people’s bodies and scientist began doing experiments. Once of those experiments led to the discovery that uranium emits light on its own—also known as radiation.
We don't recommend mixing this into your energy drink.
Rogen’s discovery led to the Curies’ discovering of polonium and radium (two elements that gave off “spontaneous emissions” they called “radioactivity”). Then, in the early 1900s, Ernest Rutherford discovered—through the creation of his own indie Superhero device, a ray gun—that all atoms contained a tiny little center, a nucleus. To speed ahead, he then figured out that the nucleus contained “hydrogen sized” particles which he named “protons.” Enter the nuclear age.
(You feel it, right? That word—nucleus—is out there.)
Then came a long line of discoveries by a long line of smarty-pants scientists: Niels Bohr (who coined “quantum physics”), Lise Meitner (“nuclear fission”), and Albert Einstein (pretty sure you’ve heard of him; E=MC2? Sound familiar?). As it turns out, a big wad of nuclear power is produced when a nucleus absorbs a neutron and splits into two lighter nuclei. This releases a whopping load of energy which produces heat—much easier, quicker, less expensive and less polluting than traditional fossil fuels, like coal.
And before you know it, the United States was in a race with Germany and Russia to develop nuclear weapons. Yes, and then World War II happened and the U.S dropped two atom bombs (as they were called) on Japan to get them to surrender.
Once that had happened, people ushered in a new era, one they considered ultra-modern and progressive: The Atomic Era. (“Atomic” and nuclear” are synonymous; we just say “nuclear” these days.) That being said, this new era brought on a host of safety and social problems, including the nuclear power plant disasters at Chernobyl (in Russia) and Three Mile Island (in Pennsylvania), when radioactive gases were released into the atmosphere. And there was also the issue of nuclear waste, a tricky problem that stills plagues us.
And then (and here’s the “and then” part of this explanation of nuclear science) the last third of the 20th century saw a host of new ways to utilize this powerful - and often dangerous - method of creating energy. As of 2011, there were 104 nuclear reactors licensed to operate at 65 power plants powering everything from residential areas to hospitals to other places that need it. Right now, about 16 percent of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power.
As well, a great host of many medical diagnostic and treatment tools are based on nuclear science. And who are the folks who design nuclear power plants? Nuclear engineers. And who are the folks who apply radiation to help diagnose and fight cancer and other diseases? Nuclear engineers. And who’re you gonna call to develop nuclear fuel cycles that reduce waste production, and to design facilities that can safely store nuclear waste? Ghostbusters? We think not.
Nuclear engineers (and chemists, and physicists) do a variety of jobs. Some work with electrical utility companies, designing and licensing electrical plants. Others work with regulatory agencies providing information and consulting about best safety practices. Some work for the government (often within the Department of Energy) while others go into medicine or even food science.
Nuclear engineering and its related sciences offer a wide range of possibilities with regard to where and how you can work. It’s a field that has its roots in chemistry and energy producing; it wasn’t specifically studied in order to create powerful weapons. It’s a science that moves humankind forward if it’s used correctly and safely (and for the right reasons). You could have a hand in that.