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alpha rays, beta emission, alpha radiation, beta particle, beta decay

Gamma emission is usually found in association with alpha and beta emission. Gamma rays possess no charge or mass; thus emission of gamma rays by a nucleus does not result in a change in chemical properties of the nucleus but merely in the loss of a certain amount of radiant energy. The emission of gamma rays is a compensation by the atomic nucleus for the unstable state that follows alpha and beta processes in the nucleus. The primary alpha or beta particle and its consequent gamma ray are emitted almost simultaneously. A few cases are known of pure alpha and beta emission, however, that is, alpha and beta processes unaccompanied by gamma rays; a number of pure gamma-emitting isotopes are also known. Pure gamma emission occurs when an isotope exists in two different forms, called nuclear isomers, having identical atomic numbers and mass numbers, but different in nuclear-energy content. The emission of gamma rays accompanies the transition of the higher-energy isomer to the lower-energy form. An example of isomerism is the isotope protactinium-234, which exists in two distinct energy states with the emission of gamma rays signaling the transition from one to the other.

Alpha, beta, and gamma radiations are all ejected from their parent nuclei at tremendous speeds. Alpha particles are slowed down and stopped as they pass through matter, primarily through interaction with the electrons present in that matter. Furthermore, most of the alpha particles emitted from the same substance are ejected at very nearly the same velocity. Thus nearly all the alpha particles from polonium-210 travel 3.8 cm through air before being completely stopped, and those of polonium-212 travel 8.5 cm under the same conditions. Measurement of distance traveled by alpha particles is used to identify isotopes. Beta particles are ejected at much greater speeds than alpha particles, and thus will penetrate considerably more matter, although the mechanism by means of which they are stopped is essentially similar. Unlike alpha particles, however, beta particles are emitted at many different speeds, and beta emitters must be distinguished from one another through the existence of the characteristic maximum and average speeds of their beta particles. The distribution in the beta-particle energies (speeds) necessitates the hypothesis of the existence of an uncharged, massless particle called the neutrino, and neutrino emission is now thought to accompany all beta decays. Gamma rays have ranges several times greater than those of beta particles and can in some cases pass through several inches of lead. Alpha and beta particles, when passing through matter, cause the formation of many ions; this ionization is particularly easy to observe when the matter is gaseous. Gamma rays are not charged, and hence cannot cause such ionization directly, but when they interact with matter they cause the ejection of electrons from atoms; the atoms minus some of their electrons are thereby ionized (see Radiation Effects, Biological). Beta rays produce t to z of the ionization generated by alpha rays per centimeter of their path in air. Gamma rays produce about t of the ionization of beta rays. The Geiger-Muller counter and other ionization chambers (see Particle Detectors), which are based on these principles, are used to detect the amounts of individual alpha, beta, and gamma rays, and hence the absolute rates of decay of radioactive substances. One unit of radioactivity, the curie, is based on the decay rate of radium-226, which is 37 billion disintegrations per second. The newer and preferred unit for measuring radioactivity in the International System of Units is called the becquerel. It is equal to one disintegration per second.

Modes of radioactive decay, other than the three above mentioned, exist. Some isotopes are capable of emitting positrons, which are identical with electrons but opposite in charge. The positron-emission process is usually classified as a beta decay and is termed beta-plus emission to distinguish it from the more common negative-electron emission. Positron emission is thought to be accomplished through the conversion, in the nucleus, of a proton into a neutron, resulting in a decrease of the atomic number by one unit. Another mode of decay, known as K-electron capture, consists of the capture of an electron by the nucleus, followed by the transformation of a proton to a neutron. The net result is thus also a decrease of the atomic number by one unit. The process is observable only because the removal of the electron from its orbit results in the emission of an X ray. In recent years it has been shown that a number of isotopes, notably uranium-235 and several isotopes of the artificial transuranium elements, are capable of decaying by a spontaneous-fission process, in which the nucleus is split into two fragments. In the mid-1980s a unique decay mode was observed, in which isotopes of radium of masses 222, 223, and 224 emit carbon-14 nuclei rather than decaying in the usual way by emitting alpha radiation.

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