Radioactive Decay - Discovery


Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by the French scientist Henri Becquerel, while working on phosphorescent materials. These materials glow in the dark after exposure to light, and he suspected that the glow produced in cathode ray tubes by X-rays might be associated with phosphorescence. He wrapped a photographic plate in black paper and placed various phosphorescent salts on it. All results were negative until he used uranium salts. The result with these compounds was a blackening of the plate. These radiations were called Becquerel Rays.

It soon became clear that the blackening of the plate had nothing to do with phosphorescence, because the plate blackened when the mineral was in the dark. Non-phosphorescent salts of uranium and metallic uranium also blackened the plate. It was clear that there is a form of radiation that could pass through paper that was causing the plate to become black.

At first it seemed that the new radiation was similar to the then recently discovered X-rays. Further research by Becquerel, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Villard, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and others discovered that this form of radioactivity was significantly more complicated. Different types of decay can occur, producing very different types of radiation. Rutherford was the first to realize that they all occur with the same mathematical exponential formula (see below), and Rutherford and his student Frederick Soddy were first to realize that many decay processes resulted in the transmutation of one element to another. Subsequently, the radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy was formulated to describe the products of alpha and beta decay.

The early researchers also discovered that many other chemical elements besides uranium have radioactive isotopes. A systematic search for the total radioactivity in uranium ores also guided Marie Curie to isolate a new element polonium and to separate a new element radium from barium. The two elements' chemical similarity would otherwise have made them difficult to distinguish.

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