Physics and Chemistry

Light, Sound, and Other Waves

What are the characteristics of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation?

Radiation is a term that describes all the ways energy is emitted by the atom as X rays, gamma rays, neutrons, or as charged particles. Most atoms, being stable, are nonradioactive; others are unstable and give off either particles or gamma radiation. Substances bombarded by radioactive particles can become radioactive and yield alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays.

Alpha particles, first identified by Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852–1908), have a positive electrical charge and consist of two protons and two neutrons. Because of their great mass, alpha particles can travel only a short distance, around 2 inches (5 centimeters) in air, and can be stopped by a sheet of paper.

Beta particles, identified by Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937), are extremely high-speed electrons that move at the speed of light. They can travel far in air and can pass through solid matter several millimeters thick.

Gamma rays, identified by Marie (1867–1934) and Pierre Curie (1859–1906), are similar to X rays, but they usually have a shorter wavelength. These rays, which are bursts of photons, or very short-wave electromagnetic radiation, travel at the speed of light. They are much more penetrating than either the alpha or beta particles and can go through 7 inches (18 centimeters) of lead.


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