How one scientist is challenging the laws of physics

Radostina Zidarova is carrying out research into unstable atomic nuclei

2024/03/08 by

Radostina Zidarova has already achieved a lot in her almost four years at TU Darmstadt. The young physicist is carrying out research into neutron-rich atomic nuclei at the Institute of Nuclear Physics (IKP) by analysing them using gamma-ray spectroscopy.

Radostina Zidarova at the S-DALINAC of TU Darmstadt.

She first has to produce these nuclei (nuclides) in a particle accelerator by accelerating ions and firing them at a target. The collisions result in many other products but only a small number of the unstable nuclei in which Zidarova is interested. The analyses are extremely laborious as these nuclides have not been properly researched up to now and it is only possible to measure the gamma radiation emitted by the nuclei after they have been reliably identified. Their spectroscopy then provides information on the various properties of the atomic nucleus, such as its spatial form and internal structure.

Zidarova’s research focuses specifically on the heavy atomic nuclei from titanium and scandium, two light metals. While many of us picture the periodic table of elements that we learnt about at school, nuclear physicists work instead with a nuclide chart. This chart shows the number of protons and neutrons in the various different atomic nuclei in the form of an oversized table. While the number of protons, the rows in the table, defines the chemical element, the number of neutrons, the columns in the table, defines the mass of each individual nuclide (or more precisely: the isotope of the element). The ratio of neutrons to protons determines, among other things, the stability of the atomic nucleus. The more unstable an atomic nucleus is, the more unpredictably it behaves. “We have observed things in our research that we could never have expected”, says Zidarova. “And our observations could not have been predicted from the physical properties of less unstable nuclides.” This is precisely what Zidarova finds so exciting about her work: discovering unknown things that may one day form part of a totally new physical formula.

Her hard work has been worthwhile and she was recently awarded a Giersch Excellence Grant for her promising doctoral research. These grants are given to young scientists who have already carried out outstanding research during their doctoral studies. The 29-year-old researcher from Bulgaria not only has her hands full with her research but also had a baby in 2022. This was a deliberate choice as she explains: “The longer you spend in academia, the more responsibility you have for others. I still had the flexibility during my doctoral studies to balance starting a family with my research.” Nevertheless, she has naturally found this balancing act to be a challenge. Zidarova is therefore all the more grateful that she has always been able call on the support of her two thesis supervisors, Volker Werner and Professor Norbert Pietralla. She met her partner, who is also a doctoral candidate, at the IKP, which meant that the couple were almost guaranteed to receive a place at the daycare center at TU Darmstadt. This was a great relief to both of them. The physicist says that she has felt at home in Darmstadt from the very beginning. She was already familiar with the university after spending an Erasmus semester here in winter 2018/19. It was during this time that she became aware of the importance attributed to research in Germany. “The prospects of pursuing a scientific career are not particularly good in my home country”, says Zidarova. And this is why it was not a difficult choice for her to move to Darmstadt after completing her master’s degree at the University of Sofia.

What the future holds for Radostina Zidarova is still unclear but for the moment she wants to fully concentrate on writing her doctoral thesis and plans to submit it in the summer.