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Radioactivity

Types of Radiations

radioactive decay series, protactinium, decay series, alpha particles, mass numbers

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>  The Nuclear Hypothesis

When uranium-238 decays by alpha emission, thorium-234 is formed; thorium-234 is a beta emitter and decays to form protactinium-234. Protactinium-234 in turn is a beta emitter, forming a new isotope of uranium, uranium-234. Uranium-234 decays by alpha emission to form thorium-230, which decays in turn by alpha emission to yield the predominant isotope, radium-226. This radioactive decay series, called the uranium-radium series, continues similarly through five more alpha emissions and four more beta emissions until the end product, a nonradioactive (stable) isotope of lead (element 82) of mass 206 is reached. Every element in the periodic table between uranium and lead is represented in this series, and each isotope is distinguishable by its characteristic half-life. The members of the series all share a common characteristic: Their mass numbers can be made exactly divisible by four if the number 2 is subtracted from them, that is, their mass numbers can be expressed by the simple formula 4n + 2, in which n is a whole number. Other natural radioactive series are the thorium series, called the 4n series, because the mass numbers of all its members are exactly divisible by four, and the actinium series, or 4n + 3 series. The parent of the thorium series is the isotope thorium-232, and its final product is the stable isotope lead-208. The actinium series begins with uranium-235 (named actinouranium by early investigators) and ends with lead-207. A fourth series, the 4n + 1 series, all the members of which are artificially radioactive, has in recent years been discovered and thoroughly characterized. Its initial member is an isotope of the synthetic element curium, curium-241. It contains the longest-lived isotope of the element neptunium, and its final product is bismuth-209.

An interesting application of knowledge of radioactive elements is made in determining the age of the earth. One method of determining geologic time is based on the fact that in many uranium and thorium ores, all of which have been decaying since their formation, the alpha particles have been trapped (as helium atoms) in the interior of the rock. By accurately determining the relative amounts of helium, uranium, and thorium in the rock, the length of time during which the decay processes have been going on (the age of the rock) can be calculated. Another method is based on the determination of the ratio of uranium-238 to lead-206 or of thorium-232 to lead-208 in the rocks (that is, the ratios of concentration of the initial and final members of the decay series). These and other methods give values for the age of the earth of between 3 billion and 5 billion years. Similar values are obtained for meteorites that have fallen to the surface of the earth, as well as samples of the moon brought back by Apollo 11 in July 1969, indicating the possibility that the entire solar system could be about the same age as the earth.

Gamma Radiation

Relativity, theory, developed in the early 20th century, which originally attempted to account for certain anomalies in the concept of relative motion, but which in its ramifications has developed into one of the most important basic concepts in physical science. The theory of relativity, developed primarily by German American physicist Albert Einstein, is the basis for later demonstration by physicists of the essential unity of matter and energy, of space and time, and of the forces of gravity and acceleration.



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