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Quantum Theory

Current Research and Applications

Frederick Soddy, electromagnetic rays, Pierre Curie, electroscope, beta particles

Radioactivity, spontaneous disintegration of atomic nuclei by the emission of subatomic particles called alpha particles and beta particles, or of electromagnetic rays called X rays and gamma rays. The phenomenon was discovered in 1896 by the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel when he observed that the element uranium can blacken a photographic plate, although separated from it by glass or black paper. He also observed that the rays that produce the darkening are capable of discharging an electroscope, indicating that the rays possess an electric charge. In 1898 the French chemists Marie Curie and Pierre Curie deduced that radioactivity is a phenomenon associated with atoms, independent of their physical or chemical state. They also deduced that because the uranium-containing ore pitchblende is more intensely radioactive than the uranium salts that were used by Becquerel, other radioactive elements must be in the ore. They carried through a series of chemical treatments of the pitchblende that resulted in the discovery of two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium. Marie Curie also discovered that the element thorium is radioactive, and in 1899 the radioactive element actinium was discovered by the French chemist Andre Louis Debierne. In that same year the discovery of the radioactive gas radon was made by the British physicists Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, who observed it in association with thorium, actinium, and radium.

Radioactivity was soon recognized as a more concentrated source of energy than had been known before. The Curies measured the heat associated with the decay of radium and established that 1 g (0.035 oz) of radium gives off about 100 cal of energy every hour. This heating effect continues hour after hour and year after year, whereas the complete combustion of a gram of coal results in the production of a total of only about 8000 cal of energy. Radioactivity attracted the attention of scientists throughout the world following these early discoveries. In the ensuing decades many aspects of the phenomenon were thoroughly investigated.

Contributors

Lewin, Seymour Z., M.S., Ph.D.

Professor of Chemistry, New York University.



Article key phrases:

Frederick Soddy, electromagnetic rays, Pierre Curie, electroscope, beta particles, polonium, alpha particles, black paper, complete combustion, gamma rays, Curies, radium, heating effect, electric charge, Radioactivity, atoms, darkening, X rays, phenomenon, oz, discovery, aspects, independent, glass, hour, association, total, world, production, year

 
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