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Das & Ferbel, Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics (World Scientific, 2003)

Das & Ferbel, Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics (World Scientific, 2003)

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Published by Paul Allen Chavit
An introduction to nuclear physics
An introduction to nuclear physics

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Published by: Paul Allen Chavit on Nov 01, 2010
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As we have seen, unstable nuclei can often transmute into other nuclei
through the emission of a, /3 or 7 particles. Any such spontaneous transition
from one state to another is known as a radioactive decay, and in this
chapter we will describe some general properties of such processes.
As we mentioned before, radioactive decay can be described as a sta-
tistical process. Namely, if we have a large number of radioactive nuclei,
we cannot say specifically which nucleus will decay at any given time. But
there is a unique constant probability of decay associated with each nu-
cleus. Thus, if N denotes the number of radioactive nuclei of any specified
type, at a given time, and A is the constant probability for decay per unit
time (that is, the decay constant), then the change in the number of nuclei
during an infinitesimal time interval dt is defined by

dN = N(t + dt) - N(t) = -N(t)X dt.



Nuclear and Particle Physics

The negative sign in the above equation represents, as usual, the fact that
the number of nuclei decreases as a result of decay. If we assume No to be
the initial number of nuclei at t = 0, then the number of nuclei N(t) at any
later time can be obtained from Eq. (5.22) as




or In —fl = -Xt,

or N(t) = Noe~xt.


In other words, for a radioactively decaying system, the number of nuclei
that survive decreases exponentially, and vanishes only at infinite times.
This is the characteristic law for all such statistical decay processes.
There are several time scales that can be associated with a radioactive
system. We can denote by ii the time interval during which half of the
nuclei in the sample decay. It then follows that

N(H) = f=N0e-^,

or Aii = In 2,


If the decay constant is known (or can be calculated), then the half-life
ti can be obtained and compared directly with measured values. Another
useful time scale for describing decays is the average or mean life of a
radioactive material. This can be calculated using Eq. (5.23)


Applications of Nuclear Physics





= Nofo°°te-"dt

~ Nof™e-Hdt

= £ 4


where the definite integrals can be performed directly or found in tables
(they are related to "Gamma" functions). Consequently, as we mentioned
in the previous chapter in connection with barrier penetration, the mean
life of the sample is the inverse of the decay constant. Furthermore, r is
related to the half-life through the multiplicative constant In 2 = 0.693.
We noted before that Eq. (5.23) implied that it would take an infinite
amount of time for the total sample to disintegrate. Nevertheless, after
several half-lives, the number of decaying nuclei is often too small to be
detected. The number of disintegrations per unit time, or the activity, of a
material is defined as follows

A(t)= ~ =XN(t) = XNoe-xt.



The activity is clearly a function of time and, in fact, also falls off exponen-
tially with time. For example, for 226Ra, whose half-life is 1620 years, we
have ii = 1620yr = 1.62 x 103yr « 1.62 x 103 x 3.1 x 107sec «5x 1010sec.




5 x 1010sec


If the radioactive sample at t = 0 consists of one gram of 226Ra, then the
original number of radioactive nuclei in the sample is

fi * ID23




and the activity of the sample at t = 0 is consequently


Nuclear and Particle Physics

A(t = 0) = \N0

« 1.4 x 10~n x 2.7 x 1021/sec

« 3.7 x 1010 disintegrations/sec.


This initial activity falls off exponentially in time with the same decay
constant as given in Eq. (5.27).
The natural activity of 226Ra has been used to define a unit of radioac-
tivity. Thus, any sample with 3.7 x 1010 disintegrations per second is said
to have a radioactivity of 1 curie (Ci), named after Pierre Curie. Typi-
cal laboratory samples usually have far smaller radioactivities of the order
of a millicurie = 1 m Ci = 10~3 Ci = 3.7 x 107 disintegrations/sec, or a
microcurie = 1 [i Ci = 10~6 Ci = 3.7 x 104 disintegrations/sec. A more
rational unit of activity is known as the rutherford (rd), defined as 106
disintegrations/sec. An activity of 1 micro-rutherford (/xrd) in a material
corresponds therefore to 1 disintegration per second, and is referred to as
one becquerel (Bq).

Example 1

Let us suppose that we have a small sample of radioactive substance that
has a mean life r of 103 seconds. At some time t = 0 we observe 106
disintegrations per second. At a later time t, we would expect from Eq.
(5.26) that the activity would be

A(t) = A(0)e~xt.

Thus if we want the number of disintegrations expected in any 10 sec in-
terval centered on t, this would be




dtA{t) = —=• ^(O)e"At|*+J



= rA(0)e~Xt\^ = TA(0) (e"^*"5) - e-*(*+5)) .

Let us suppose that we wish to know AN(t) at t = 1000 sec. Then, for a
10 sec interval centered oni= 1000, we would predict

Applications of Nuclear Physics


AAT(IOOO) = TA(0) [e~$£s -e-T$$]

= rA{Q)e~i f eioro - e~Tooo j

In fact, the general expression for an arbitrary At would be

t / At


AN(t) = TA(0) e"r ( e2r - e" 2r j ,

which for At <^C r reduces to

At *


AAT(f) « TA(0) — e~ r = .4(0) At e~ r .


Clearly, the expected number of disintegrations for our chosen time inter-
val will drop with time. There is, of course, no a priori way of determining
specifically which of our nuclei will disintegrate; we know only the expected
average number of disintegrations. In statistical processes, where the prob-
ability of any occurrence (p) is small, but there is a large sample of events
(N) that can contribute to the process, Poisson statistics can be used to
describe the system. For Poisson statistics, when the expected mean is
AN = pN, then the error or standard deviation on the mean can be shown
to be just yfpN = VAN. (Note that for our chosen interval of At = 10
sec, the probability p = AAt = 10~2 are appropriate.)

Going back to our specific example, where A AT is 4 x 106, we must now
interpret the predicted result as follows. We can state that, in any given ex-
periment performed to count AiV, we will rarely observe the exact expected
mean number of AN counts. What we will see is that, in about 68% of
such experiments (assuming a Gaussian approximation for the error), the
observed counting rate will fall between AN - VAN and A AT + VAN.
Thus, if we expect AN = 4 x 106 counts, then ^^^ is only 5 x 10~4, so
the fluctuations about the mean will be at the level of « 0.05%. However,


Nuclear and Particle Physics

if we wish to look at the counting rate at a somewhat later time of t = 104
sec, then AN(t = 104) will be far smaller

AiV(104) » 106 x 10 x e~w « 450,

and VA~N will be « 21, and the relative deviations from the expected value
will therefore be larger and easier to observe.

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