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What is Radioactivity?

What is Radioactivity?

Radioactivity involves the spontaneous decomposition of an unstable atomic nucleus into a more stable form, in one of three decays: alpha, beta, gamma. The nucleus becomes more stable by releasing excess energy either in the form of particles (alpha and beta) or as a wave.

Fast Fact: Lead is the heaviest stable element in the periodic table. All heavier elements decay over time.



What causes radioactivity?

As its name implies, radioactivity is the act of emitting radiation spontaneously. This is done by an atomic nucleus that, for some reason, is unstable; it “wants” to give up some energy in order to shift to a more stable configuration. During the first half of the twentieth century, much of modern physics was devoted to exploring why this happens, with the result that nuclear decay was fairly well understood by 1960. Too many neutrons in a nucleus lead it to emit a negative beta particle, which changes one of the neutrons into a proton. Too many protons in a nucleus lead it to emit a positron (positively charged electron), changing a proton into a neutron. Too much energy leads a nucleus to emit a gamma ray, which discards great energy without changing any of the particles in the nucleus. Too much mass leads a nucleus to emit an alpha particle, discarding four heavy particles (two protons and two neutrons).

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