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Year 11 Radiation Lesson
Roentgen's Amazing Discovery

In 1895 a German scientist by the name of Wilhelm
Roentgen made a discovery that changed the world
forever. While working with some equipment in his
laboratory (a cathode-ray tube) he observed that a covered
photograph plate, which happened to be near his
experiment, was exposed. Roentgen hypothesized that the
film was exposed because of some unknown ray that was emitted from his
equipment. Roentgen called this "x-ray radiation," and a new era of scientific
discovery was born.

Roentgen quickly discovered that his mysterious x-rays could travel through
black paper, books and even the human body.

Roentgen immediately sensed the potential of his
discovery. He took the first x-ray (Fig. 2) after he discovered
that x-rays could expose photographic film. Using x-rays, it
would now be possible for doctors to "see" inside the human
body without having to perform surgery.

Upon learning of Roentgen's success, a French scientist, Henry Becquerel
performed experiments with the element uranium. Becquerel found that
uranium could also expose photographic film, even when the film was wrapped in
black paper. Had Becquerel discovered another source of x-rays? Becquerel
discovered that there was more than one type of radiation.

The Stupendous Atom


To begin our study of radiation we must look at the atom. What is an
atom? To be able to visualize atoms, you need to think small. What do you
suppose would happen if you took a single grain of salt and began to break it up
into smaller and smaller pieces? Sooner or later you would get pieces so small
that you would be no longer be able to see them. The smallest piece that is still
salt is called a molecule.

Everything is made up of molecules - tables, chairs, sugar and even the cells
which make up your body. However, all molecules are not alike. A molecule of
sugar is different than a molecule of salt.

But this is not the whole story. Molecules are made up of even smaller parts
called atoms. An atom is the smallest unit of matter. Atoms are so small that
even the most powerful microscopes have difficulty seeing them. There are
only 109 different kinds of atoms. Each kind of atom is called an element.

If it is true that there are only 109 elements, then how can there be so many
different substances in the world? Atoms are like letters in the alphabet. The
twenty-six letters in the alphabet, when they are arranged in different
combinations, account for the thousands of words that make up the English
language. In the same way, the 109 known elements, when arranged in various
molecules, make up the millions of objects that we see around us.

The Building Blocks of Atoms

As small as atoms are, they are made up of even smaller pieces called
fundamental particles. The three common fundamental particles which make up
the atom include the proton, the neutron and the electron. Protons and neutrons
are found in the nucleus, or the center, of the atom. Electrons orbit the nucleus.

Protons are positively charged particles. They are found in the nucleus of the
atom and they determine which element an atom is.

On the periodic table of elements, atoms are listed by their atomic
number. The atomic number of an atom is the number of protons the atom
has in its nucleus. If an atom has ninety-two protons in its nucleus, it will have
an atomic number of 92. The atom which has an atomic number of 92 is
represented with a U on the periodic table. This atom is called uranium. Any
atom which contains 92 protons in it its nucleus will be an uranium atom.

The neutron is very similar to the proton in that it has about the same mass and
is usually found in the nucleus of the atom. However, unlike the proton, the
neutron has no charge. When something has neither a positive or a negative
charge, it is said to be electrically neutral.

The electron is the smallest of the particles, which make up the atom. The
electron has a negative charge and orbits the nucleus. The electrons of an atom
determine its chemical properties. In an electrically neutral atom, the number
of protons and electrons are equal. This means that the net charge of the atom
will be zero. It is neither positively nor negatively charged. When a neutral
atom loses an electron, it has more positively charged protons that negatively
charged electrons. This means that it will have an overall positive charge. An
atom with an overall positive or negative charge is called an ion.

Structure of the atom

An atom can be thought of as having two parts: the nucleus and the orbiting
electrons (Fig.9). In the nucleus, or the very centre of the atom, protons and
neutrons are very close together. Most of the mass of an atom is located within
the nucleus. The electrons are always found in their orbits around the nucleus.

Unstable Isotopes and Radiation

When you look at a periodic table, you will notice that there are only 109
elements. However, if you ask a group of chemists how many different types of
atoms there are, they will tell you that there are about 2800! This is the case
because of something called an isotope. It turns out that one element may have

several different isotopes. Isotopes of an element are atoms that contain the
same number of protons as the element, but have different numbers of neutrons
in their nucleus.

Let's look at two isotopes of the element hydrogen. Hydrogen is a simple
element which normally has one proton and one electron. However, if you were
to look through a huge collection of hydrogen you could find atoms which contain
one proton, one electron and one neutron. Is this still hydrogen? It is, because
it contains only one proton in its nucleus. These two forms of hydrogen (one
with a neutron and one without a neutron) are isotopes of the element hydrogen.

Most of the atoms that we encounter in our daily lives are stable isotopes. A
stable isotope is one which will exist without losing energy or particles out of its
nucleus. All matter attempts to reach a stable state.

Many of the less common isotopes are not stable and only exist for a period of
time before they change into a different element. An unstable isotope releases
particles or energy from its nucleus, in an attempt to become more stable. This
process is called radioactive decay and will be discussed in a later
section. Energy and particles that are emitted from the nucleus of an atom are
referred to as radiation.

Alpha Particles

This form of radioactive decay is usually shown using the Greek letter for alpha.

In alpha-decay an atom ejects an alpha particle, which is simply a helium atom
without any electrons. In doing so the parent atom decays into a lighter particle.
An example of this is a uranium-238 atom decaying into into a thorium-234 atom
and an alpha particle (helium-4 nucleus, i.e. 2 protons and 2 neutrons). A
schematic diagram illustrates this:

This type of decay occurs naturally in uranium and is an example of "spontaneous

Alpha particles are, by far, the largest particles emitted from the nucleus of an
unstable atom. Alpha particles are composed of two protons and two
neutrons. When an atom emits an alpha particle, it loses two protons. Thus, the
unstable atom changes into a different type of element.

Remember that the identity of an atom is determined by the number of protons
in the nucleus of the atom. If uranium loses two protons, it goes from 92 to 90
protons and becomes the element thorium. Notice on the periodic table that
uranium has an atomic number of 92 and that thorium has an atomic number of

Beta Particles

Beta particles are much lighter than alpha particles and are essentially high-
energy electrons. When an atom emits a beta particle, it also changes into a
different atom. Beta particles are emitted when one of the neutrons in the
nucleus of the atom changes into a proton. In the process of changing into a
proton, the beta particle is released.

This form of radioactive decay is usually shown using the Greek letter for beta.
It looks like this:


In beta-decay a neutron in the nucleus of an atom changes into a proton and
emits an electron (usually shown as e-). An example of this is an atom of carbon-
15 changing ("transmuting") into an atom of nitrogen-15. We can show this as a
schematic diagram:

Notice that the number of particles in the nucleus have stayed the same; 15 in
each case. Another thing to notice is that the atom has decayed "upwards". That
is, it has gone from being element number 6 (carbon) to element number 7

Gamma Rays

Gamma rays are high-energy photons emitted from the nucleus of an
atom. Gamma rays are identical to the x-rays that you might be exposed to in a
doctor's office when a medical x-ray is taken. The only difference is that
gamma rays come from the center of atoms and x-rays do not.

This form of radioactive decay is usually shown using the Greek letter for
gamma. it looks like this:

Following a decay, the arrangement of protons and neutrons in the
nucleus may not be ideal, and the nucleus may need to release some extra
energy to become more stable. Before the release of this energy, the nucleus is
known as ‘excited’. An excited nucleus is denoted by an asterisk (*)or by index
'm' after the symbol for the element. The excess energy is emitted as a γ ray.
One example of γ decay occurs after lead-210 emits a β− particle and becomes
bismuth-210. The excited daughter nucleus goes on to emit a γ ray: This γ ray is
the packet of excess energy. It has no mass and no charge and is not deflected
by electric or magnetic fields. Because it is a photon, or packet of
electromagnetic energy, it travels at the speed of light.

Gamma radiation is electromagnetic radiation and therefore similar to visible
light. The main difference is that its energy is much higher than that of light.
Gamma rays are emitted if an atomic nucleus is in an excited state, usually after
some decay and it wants to get rid of the excitation energy. In this case neither
the atomic nor the mass number changes, only the energy of the nucleus
decreases. The penetrability of the gamma photons is very high but their ability
to ionize is less than that of the alpha particles.

The barium (atomic number 56) isotope of mass number 137, which is in an
excited state (denoted by 'm'), gets rid of its excitation energy by emitting
gamma radiation.

Comprehension Questions

1. The discovery that the element uranium gave off radiation was made by
2. Who was the first to discover that radiation could travel through the
human body?
3. Describe an atom. What is it made up of? Draw a picture of an atom.
4. The atomic number of an atom tells you how many ______ are in the
nucleus of the atom.
5. Name two ways that protons are different from electrons.
6. How is a neutron similar to a proton?
7. What is an ion?
8. What are isotopes?
9. What are alpha particles? Draw a sketch.
10. What are beta particles? Draw a sketch.
11. Describe what gamma rays are. Draw a sketch.
12. Describe what is happening in the picture below.

13. In the picture below fill in the descriptors.

14. If uranium loses two protons, tell which element it will become and why.
15. If uranium loses four protons, tell which element it will become and why.
16. If an americium (Am) atom loses two protons, tell which element it will
become and why.