Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 1994. 32: 153-90
Copyright © 1994 by . All rights reserved

Next Contents


Burbidge et al (1957) and Cameron (1957) laid out the framework for our understanding of the formation of the heavy nuclei (those nuclei with mass number A gtapprox 70). From systematics in the solar system abundance distribution, Burbidge et al determined that the heavy nuclei were formed in three distinct nucleosynthetic processes, which they termed the r-, s-, and p-processes. That we still use these terms today is a credit to the soundness of this work done 37 years ago.

We may understand how Burbidge et al and Cameron arrived at their conclusions from Figure 1. One population of nuclei, the s-nuclei, shows an abundance distribution with peaks near mass numbers 87, 138, and 208. These nuclei are made in a slow neutron-capture process, the s-process. A rapid neutron-capture process, the r-process, is responsible for the r-nuclei, whose abundance distribution shows peaks at mass numbers 80, 130, and 195. The p-process is responsible for production of the rarer, more proton-rich heavy isotopes (the p-nuclei) that cannot be made by neutron capture.

The first quantitative evaluations of the ideas of Burbidge et al and Cameron Came to light in the early 1960s with work on the s-process (Clayton et al 1961, Seeger et al 1965) and the r-process (Seeger et al 1965). These calculations further elucidated the mechanisms for heavy-element formation and showed the plausibility of the framework developed in the 1950s. Subsequent work has focused on determining the astrophysical sites where the r-, s-, and p- processes occurred with the help of improved nuclear details, stellar models, and abundances. A goal of this paper is to review the recent progress astrophysicists, astronomers, and physicists have made in these directions and to point out the problems that remain in our understanding of the formation of the heavy nuclei. Another, perhaps deeper, goal is to to seek some understanding of why there are three major processes available to nature for synthesis of heavy elements.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The solar system abundances of r-nuclei, s-nuclei, and p-nuclei, relative to Si = 106. Only isotopes for which 90% or more of the inferred production comes from a single process are shown. The data are from Anders & Grevesse (1989) and Kappeler et al (1989).

It is impossible for a single paper to cover all relevant aspects of the r-, s-, and p-processes; therefore, where possible, references to other reviews are given. Readers should turn to these reviews for more details. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the present paper gives some flavor for the rich field of heavy-element synthesis.

Next Contents