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In physics, a nucleon is a collective name for two particles: the neutron and the proton. These are the two constituents of the atomic nucleus. Until the 1960s, the nucleons were thought to be elementary particles. Now they are known to be composite particles, each made of three quarks bound together by the so-called strong interaction.

The interaction between two or more nucleons is called internucleon interactions or nuclear force, which is also ultimately caused by the strong interaction. (Before the discovery of quarks, the term "strong interaction" referred to just internucleon interactions.)

Nucleons sit at the boundary where particle physics and nuclear physics overlap. Particle physics, particularly quantum chromodynamics, provides the fundamental equations that explain the properties of quarks and of the strong interaction. These equations explain quantitatively how quarks can bind together into protons and neutrons (and all the other hadrons). However, when multiple nucleons are assembled into an atomic nucleus (nuclide), these fundamental equations become too difficult to solve directly (see lattice QCD). Instead, nuclides are studied within nuclear physics, which studies nucleons and their interactions by approximations and models, such as the nuclear shell model. These models can successfully explain nuclide properties, for example, whether or not a certain nuclide undergoes radioactive decay.

The proton and neutron are both baryons and both fermions. In the terminology of particle physics, these two particles make up an isospin doublet (I = 12). This explains why their masses are so similar, with the neutron just 0.1% heavier than the proton.


Nucleon properties

Protons and neutrons are most important and best known for constituting atomic nuclei, but they can also be found on their own, not part of a larger nucleus. A proton on its own is the nucleus of the hydrogen-1 atom (1H). A neutron on its own is unstable (see below), but they can be found in nuclear reactions (see neutron radiation) and are used in scientific analysis (see neutron scattering).

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