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radioactivity

Radioactive Emissions

Natural radioactivity is exhibited by several elements, including radium, uranium, and other members of the actinide series, and by some isotopes of lighter elements, such as carbon-14, used in radioactive dating. Radioactivity may also be induced, or created artificially, by bombarding the nuclei of normally stable elements in a particle accelerator. Essentially there is no difference between these two manifestations of radioactivity.

The radiation produced during radioactivity is predominantly of three types, designated as alpha, beta, and gamma rays. These types differ in velocity, in the way in which they are affected by a magnetic field, and in their ability to penetrate or pass through matter. Other, less common, types of radioactivity are electron capture (capture of one of the orbiting atomic electrons by the unstable nucleus) and positron emission—both forms of beta decay and both resulting in the change of a proton to a neutron within the nucleus—an internal conversion, in which an excited nucleus transfers energy directly to one of the atom's orbiting electrons and ejects it from the atom.

Alpha Radiation

Alpha rays have the least penetrating power, move at a slower velocity than the other types, and are deflected slightly by a magnetic field in a direction that indicates a positive charge. Alpha rays are nuclei of ordinary helium atoms (see alpha particle). Alpha decay reduces the atomic weight, or mass number, of a nucleus, while beta and gamma decay leave the mass number unchanged. Thus, the net effect of alpha radioactivity is to produce nuclei lighter than those of the original radioactive substance. For example, in the disintegration, or decay, of uranium-238 by the emission of alpha particles, radioactive thorium (formerly called ionium) is produced. The alpha decay reduces the atomic number of the nucleus by 2 and the mass number by 4:;e22;none;1;e22;;;block;;;;no;1;139392n;229502n;;;;;eq22;comptd;;center;stack;;;;;CE5

Beta Radiation

Beta rays are more penetrating than alpha rays, move at a very high speed, and are deflected considerably by a magnetic field in a direction that indicates a negative charge; analysis shows that beta rays are high-speed electrons (see beta particle; electron). In beta decay a neutron within the nucleus changes to a proton, in the process emitting an electron and an antineutrino (the antiparticle of the neutrino, a neutral particle with a small mass). The electron is immediately ejected from the nucleus, and the net result is an increase of 1 in the atomic number of the nucleus but no change in the mass number. The thorium-234 produced above experiences two successive beta decays:;e23;none;1;e23;;;block;;;;no;1;139392n;267625n;;;;;eq23;comptd;;center;stack;;;;;CE5

Gamma Radiation

Gamma rays have very great penetrating power and are not affected at all by a magnetic field. They move at the speed of light and have a very short wavelength (or high frequency); thus they are a type of electromagnetic radiation (see gamma radiation). Gamma rays result from the transition of nuclei from excited states (higher energy) to their ground state (lowest energy), and their production is analogous to the emission of ordinary light caused by transitions of electrons within the atom (see atom; spectrum). Gamma decay often accompanies alpha or beta decay and affects neither the atomic number nor the mass number of the nucleus.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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