Discovery of radioactivity
Like Thomson’s discovery of the electron, the discovery of radioactivity in uranium by French physicist Henri Becquerel in 1896 forced scientists to radically change their ideas about atomic structure. Radioactivity demonstrated that the atom was neither indivisible nor immutable. Instead of serving merely as an inert matrix for electrons, the atom could change form and emit an enormous amount of energy. Furthermore, radioactivity itself became an important tool for revealing the interior of the atom.
German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had discovered X-rays in 1895, and Becquerel thought they might be related to fluorescence and phosphorescence, processes in which substances absorb and emit energy as light. In the course of his investigations, Becquerel stored some photographic plates and uranium salts in a desk drawer. Expecting to find the plates only lightly fogged, he developed them and was surprised to find sharp images of the salts. He then began experiments that showed that uranium salts emit a penetrating radiation independent of external influences. Becquerel also demonstrated that the radiation could discharge electrified bodies. In this case discharge means the removal of electric charge, and it is now understood that the radiation, by ionizing molecules of air, allows the air to conduct an electric current. Early studies of radioactivity relied on measuring ionization power or on observing the effects of radiation on photographic plates.
In 1898 French physicists Pierre and Marie Curie discovered the strongly radioactive elements polonium and radium, which occur naturally in uranium minerals. Marie coined the term radioactivity for the spontaneous emission of ionizing, penetrating rays by certain atoms.
Experiments conducted by British physicist Ernest Rutherford in 1899 showed that radioactive substances emit more than one kind of radiation. It was determined that part of the radiation is 100 times more penetrating than the rest and can pass through aluminum foil one-fiftieth of a millimetre thick. Rutherford named the less-penetrating emanations alpha rays and the more-powerful ones beta rays, after the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. Investigators who in 1899 found that beta rays were deflected by a magnetic field concluded that they are negatively charged particles similar to cathode rays. In 1903 Rutherford found that alpha rays were deflected slightly in the opposite direction, showing that they are massive, positively charged particles. Much later Rutherford proved that alpha rays are nuclei of helium atoms by collecting the rays in an evacuated tube and detecting the buildup of helium gas over several days.
A third kind of radiation was identified by French chemist Paul Villard in 1900. Designated as the gamma ray, it is not deflected by magnets and is much more penetrating than alpha particles. Gamma rays were later shown to be a form of electromagnetic radiation, similar to light or X-rays, but with much shorter wavelengths. Because of these shorter wavelengths, gamma rays have higher frequencies and are even more penetrating than X-rays.
In 1902, while studying the radioactivity of thorium, Rutherford and English chemist Frederick Soddy discovered that radioactivity was associated with changes inside the atom that transformed thorium into a different element. They found that thorium continually generates a chemically different substance that is intensely radioactive. The radioactivity eventually makes the new element disappear. Watching the process, Rutherford and Soddy formulated the exponential decay law (seedecay constant), which states that a fixed fraction of the element will decay in each unit of time. For example, half of the thorium product decays in four days, half the remaining sample in the next four days, and so on.
Until the 20th century, physicists had studied subjects, such as mechanics, heat, and electromagnetism, that they could understand by applying common sense or by extrapolating from everyday experiences. The discoveries of the electron and radioactivity, however, showed that classical Newtonian mechanics could not explain phenomena at atomic and subatomic levels. As the primacy of classical mechanics crumbled during the early 20th century, quantum mechanics was developed to replace it. Since then experiments and theories have led physicists into a world that is often extremely abstract and seemingly contradictory.
The Discovery of Radioactivity
In 1896 Henri Becquerel was using naturally fluorescent minerals to study the properties of x-rays, which had been discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen. He exposed potassium uranyl sulfate to sunlight and then placed it on photographic plates wrapped in black paper, believing that the uranium absorbed the suns energy and then emitted it as x-rays. This hypothesis was disproved on the 26th-27th of February, when his experiment "failed" because it was overcast in Paris. For some reason, Becquerel decided to develop his photographic plates anyway. To his surprise, the images were strong and clear, proving that the uranium emitted radiation without an external source of energy such as the sun. Becquerel had discovered radioactivity.
Becquerel used an apparatus similar to that displayed below to show that the radiation he discovered could not be x-rays. X-rays are neutral and cannot be bent in a magnetic field. The new radiation was bent by the magnetic field so that the radiation must be charged and different than x-rays. When different radioactive substances were put in the magnetic field, they deflected in different directions or not at all, showing that there were three classes of radioactivity: negative, positive, and electrically neutral.
The term radioactivity was actually coined by Marie Curie, who together with her husband Pierre, began investigating the phenomenon recently discovered by Becquerel. The Curies extracted uranium from ore and to their surprise, found that the leftover ore showed more activity than the pure uranium. They concluded that the ore contained other radioactive elements. This led to the discoveries of the elements polonium and radium. It took four more years of processing tons of ore to isolate enough of each element to determine their chemical properties.
Ernest Rutherford, who did many experiments studying the properties of radioactive decay, named these alpha, beta, and gamma particles, and classified them by their ability to penetrate matter. Rutherford used an apparatus similar to that depicted in Fig. 3-7. When the air from the chamber was removed, the alpha source made a spot on the photographic plate. When air was added, the spot disappeared. Thus, only a few centimeters of air were enough to stop the alpha radiation.
Because alpha particles carry more electric charge, are more massive, and move slowly compared to beta and gamma particles, they interact much more easily with matter. Beta particles are much less massive and move faster, but are still electrically charged. A sheet of aluminum one millimeter thick or several meters of air will stop these electrons and positrons. Because gamma rays carry no electric charge, they can penetrate large distances through materials before interactingseveral centimeters of lead or a meter of concrete is needed to stop most gamma rays.