Nuclear Physics Tutorial 1 - a, b, and g Decay



Different atoms are distinguished by their numbers of protons and neutrons.  We write the symbols using the following notation:



Be careful not to confuse atomic number with the symbol A.  We will refer to A as the nucleon number in these notes and Z as the proton number.


We can determine the number of neutrons simply by subtracting the proton number from the nucleon number.  ( No of neutrons = A – Z)  Atomic particles are always in whole numbers.


Some isotopes are radioactive, as the nuclei are unstable. 


Chemical reactions involve the electrons of the outer shells.  Nuclei are not involved in any way, and remain totally unaltered even in the fiercest chemical reactions.




Radiation is the process by which an unstable parent nucleus becomes more stable by decay into a daughter nucleus by emitting particles and/or energy.  The basic form can be summed up as:



The decay can consist of several steps.  The unstable nucleus can decay to another nucleus of a different atom by a process called transmutation.  If the new nucleus is unstable it will decay again.  This is known as a decay chain.  There may be several steps, some of which last a very long time indeed, or can be very short.  Some elements have a decay time of thousands of millions of years.  In others the decay time can be microseconds.


Question 1

What is meant by the term transmutation?



Elements have different isotopes.  An element and its isotope have:


If the isotope is unstable, it is radioactive and is called a radioisotope.  We must be aware that radioactive decay is NOT the same as nuclear fission.


There are three kinds of radiation:

These kinds of radiation can be emitted individually or in any combination, depending on the type of isotope that is emitting the radiation.  Often when an alpha particle is emitted the nucleus is excited and releases the excess energy in the form of a gamma ray or gamma photon.


When specimens of radioactive isotopes decay they do so entirely randomly.  There is no pattern whatsoever, and the rate of decay is not affected by temperature or other physical constraints, or chemical reactions.


The table helps us to compare the properties of radiation






Effect of E or B field

Alpha (a)

Helium nucleus

2p + 2n

Q = + 2 e

Few cm air

Thin paper

Intense, about 104 ion pairs per mm.

Slight deflection as a positive charge

Beta (b)

High speed electron

Q = -1 e

Few mm of aluminium

Less intense than a, about 102 ion pairs per mm.

Strong deflection in opposite direction to a.

Gamma (g)

Very short wavelength em radiation

Several cm lead, couple of m of concrete

Weak interaction about 1 ion pair per mm.

No effect.


We will look at the mechanisms of production of alpha and beta radiations later.


Question 2

Complete the table that describes the properties of the three common radiations



Range in air

Stopped by









We need to be aware that elements with unstable nuclei can be harmful to living organisms.


In the early days of radiation research, people had little clue as to how dangerous the stuff was. In those days lumps of uranium were used as ice-breakers at parties (“Darling, do come and feel my magic metal.”); the metal felt warm, and gave the person feeling it a massive dose of radiation!  Today the nuclear industry takes safety very seriously indeed, and workers are rigorously monitored.  If it appears that personnel are being exposed to higher levels of radiation than they should be, they are withdrawn from that work.  Safety must the primary consideration in every function of the nuclear industry.  However, things can go wrong as in any human activity, e.g. falsification of records, or unauthorised experiments, such as those that led to the Chernobyl disaster, when 7 tonnes of caesium-137 was scattered over Europe.


Question 3

Explain the dangers associated with radioactive sources.

Question 4

Alpha and beta particles lose about 5 × 10-18 J of kinetic energy in each collision they make with an air molecule.  An alpha particle makes about 105 collisions per cm with air molecules, while a beta particle makes about 103 collisions.  What is the range of an alpha particle and a beta particle if both particles start off with an energy of 4.8 × 10-13 J?



Those who work with radiation are issued with a film badge, as shown in the picture below:



The film is exposed to all kinds of radiation.  There are strips of metal that stop alpha, beta, and lead that attenuates gamma.  Every month the film is taken in and processed, and a new film is issued.  If the workers are found to be exposed to a higher than safe level of radiation, they have to be removed from that line of work for a period of time.  This is a rare event, because in reality most workers are exposed to little above background radiation anyway.


Those who handle radioactive materials are highly trained and aware of the risks.  They will take elementary precautions such as:

Fixed sources of radiation are contained in cells or bunkers with thick concrete walls.  The cells have interlocking to prevent access when the source is exposed.  The interlocks will not unlock unless the source has been retracted.


Background radiation

Whenever radiation experiments are carried out, it is important to realise that there is always a certain amount of background radiation.  Many elements have radioactive isotopes as well as stable isotopes.  These will give off radiation.


While it's not important to know the sources of the background radiation, we must correct the count by subtracting the background radiation.  Because the emission of backgrounds counts  is a random process, it is not appropriate to take a momentary sample.  To reduce uncertainty, we need to take a count of at least 60 seconds and divide it by 60 to get an average background count.


Corrected count (Bq) = Total count (Bq) - background count (Bq)


Background radiation is entirely normal, and we are adapted to cope with it.



Radioactive decay happens when an unstable nucleus decays to a more stable.


Transmutation of the nucleus happens.


Energy is given out in the transmutation.


This is given out as a particle or photon.


Three kinds of radiation, alpha, beta, gamma.


All of these can damage living cells