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Atomic physics part 2

The discovery background radiation (CMB)

In the mid-1960s, Wilson detected leftover, cooled down radiation from early in the Universe's history by carefully scanning the sky with a device called the Holmdel Horn Antenna. Their discovery was important evidence in support of the Big Bang theory and won them the Nobel prize. The CMB was later mapped in greater detail by NASA's COBE and WMAP missions. The European Planck, launched in 2009, is currently creating the most detailed map yet.

Ionising radiation
High-energy radiation is capable of producing ionization in substances through which it passes. It includes non-particulate radiation, such as x-rays, and radiation produced by energetic charged particles, such as alpha and beta rays, and by neutrons, as from a nuclear reaction.

Alpha particles
Alpha particles are made of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. This means that they have a charge of +2, and a mass of 4 (the mass is measured in "atomic mass units", where each proton & neutron=1)

We can write them as helium nucleus, .

, or, because they're the same as a

Alpha particles are relatively slow and heavy. They have a low penetrating power - you can stop them with just a sheet of paper. Because they have a large charge, alpha particles ionise other atoms strongly.

Beta particles
Beta particles have a charge of minus 1, and a mass of about 1/2000th of a proton. This means that beta particles are the same as an electron. We can write them as an electron, . or, because they're the same as

They are fast, and light. Beta particles have a medium penetrating power - they are

Copyright2013 Dheeraj Jayakumar

stopped by a sheet of aluminium or plastics such as Perspex. Beta particles ionise atoms that they pass, but not as strongly as alpha particles do.

Gamma rays
Gamma rays are waves, not particles. This means that they have no mass and no charge. So we sometimes write .

Gamma rays have a high penetrating power - it takes a thick sheet of metal such as lead, or concrete to reduce them significantly. Gamma rays do not directly ionise other atoms, although they may cause atoms to emit other particles which will then cause ionisation. We don't find pure gamma sources - gamma rays are emitted alongside alpha or beta particles. Strictly speaking, gamma emission isn't 'radioactive decay' because it doesn't change the state of the nucleus; it just carries away some energy.

Type of Radiation Symbol

Alpha particle

Beta particle

Gamma ray


or 4 +2 slow high low paper

or 1/2000 -1 fast medium medium aluminium

(can look different, depends on the font)

Mass (atomic mass units) Charge Speed Ionising ability Penetrating power Stopped by:

0 0 very fast (speed of light) 0 high lead

Copyright2013 Dheeraj Jayakumar

Geiger-Mller tube ("GM tube")

Most people have heard of a "Geiger Counter" for measuring radioactivity. This is actually a Geiger-Mller tube with some form of counter attached, which usually tells us the number of particles detected per minute ("counts per minute"). GM tubes work using the ionising effect of radioactivity. This means that they are best at detecting alpha particles, because particles ionise strongly. Different models of GM tubes are available for detecting , and radiation.

How it Works

You can see how the tube works in the animation. The tube is filled with Argon gas, and around +400 Volts is applied to the thin wire in the middle. When a particle enters the tube, it pulls an electron from an Argon atom. The electron is attracted to the central wire, and as it rushes towards the wire, the electron will knock other electrons from Argon atoms, causing an "avalanche". Thus one single incoming particle will cause many electrons to arrive at the wire, creating a pulse which can be amplified and counted. This gives us a very sensitive detector.

Alpha and Beta decay

When a nucleus undergoes radioactive decay, it emits radiation and the nucleus is said to be radioactive. We are exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time. Even the rocks around us emit radiation! However some elements are far more radioactive than others. Even within a single element, there may be some isotopes that are more radioactive than others simply because they contain a larger number of neutrons. Radioactive isotopes are called radioisotopes. Radiation can be emitted in different forms. There are three main types of radiation: alpha, beta and gamma radiation.

Copyright2013 Dheeraj Jayakumar

Alpha decay
Alpha decay occurs in nuclei that contain too many protons, which results in strong repulsion forces between these positively charged particles. As a result of these repulsive forces, the nucleus emits an particle.

Beta decay
In nuclear physics, decay is a type of radioactive decay in which a particle (an electron or a positron) is emitted. In the case of electron emission, it is referred to as beta minus ( ), while in the case of a positron emission as beta plus ( ).

An electron and positron have identical physical characteristics except for opposite charge. In certain types of radioactive nuclei that have too many neutrons, a neutron may be converted into a proton, an electron and another particle called a neutrino. The high energy electrons that are released in this way are the - particles. This process can occur for an isolated neutron. In decay, energy is used to convert a proton into a neutron (n), a positron ( . )

and a neutrino ( ):

Half life
This is the time it takes for the radioactivity to fall by half.

This sequence shows what would happen with an imaginary radioactive substance. Use the buttons to step through it >> Notice that the radioactivity in this example falls by half every 2 hours. So we say that this imaginary substance has a half-life of 2 hours. The count rate coming from a radioactive source depends on how many unstable atoms it contains. That's the number of un-decayed atoms. If the count rate has fallen by half, it means the number of unstable atoms has fallen by


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Random nature of radioactivity decay

There is a simple connection between the random nature of nuclear decay and the half-life of a radionuclide. Any given atom of a radioactive element can undergo decay "any time it wants to" in the real world. This is the random nature of radioactive decay. We absolutely cannot tell when that one atom of whatever it is will decide to decay. The nuclear decay will happen when "it wants to" and we can only speak to the decay event of a given radionuclide by statistical means. All organisms are being exposed to ionizing radiation from natural sources all the time. Exposure to background radiation and naturally occurring radioactive materials results in an annual dose of about 310 mrem/yr.

Examples of radioactive materials being used

In teletherapy, an intense beam of radiation from a powerful source external to the patient is focused on the cancerous tissue. An example of teletherapy is the use of a device called the Gamma Knife, which focuses radiation from numerous cobalt-60 sources to a specific location deep within brain tissue.

In brachytherapy, one or more lower-activity radioactive sources are placed close to, or within, cancerous tissue, such as in the breast, prostate, or cervix. Brachytherapy sources include sealed "seeds" injected or surgically implanted, then removed after the prescribed dose is received by the patient. Intravascular brachytherapy systems use small sources that are placed into arteries using

Nuclear reactors are devices that control fission reactions producing new substances from the fission product and energy. Recall our discussion earlier about the fission process in the making of a radioisotope. Nuclear power stations use uranium in fission reactions as a fuel to produce energy. Steam is generated by the heat released during the fission process. It is this steam that turns a turbine to produce electric energy.

Sterilization of medical instruments and food is another common application of radiation. By subjecting the instruments and food to concentrated beams of radiation, we can kill microorganisms that cause contamination and disease. Because this is done with high energy radiation sources using electromagnetic energy, there is no fear of residual radiation. Also, the instruments and food may be handled without fear of radiation poisoning.

Tracers are a common application of radioisotopes. A tracer is a radioactive element whose pathway through which a chemical reaction can be followed. Tracers are commonly used in the medical field and in the study of plants and animals. Radioactive Iodine-131 can be used to study the function of the thyroid gland assisting in detecting disease.

Copyright2013 Dheeraj Jayakumar