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RADIOACTIVE CHANGE

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CHIEF FEATURES OF RADIOACTIVE CHANGE.

The features that distinguish radioactive change from chemical change, and which have made it possible in a few short years to reduce to some degree of finality and completeness the intensely complicated series of successive changes suffered by the elements uranium and thorium in the course of their disintegration, are chiefly two. In the first place, the whole phenomena are inevitable, incapable of being changed or deviated from their allotted course by any means whatever, independent of temperature, concentration, or the accumulation of products of reaction, the presence of catalysts, irreversible and capable of being accurately and quantitatively followed without alteration or disturbance of the changing system. The mathematical theory, although for many successive changes it becomes cumbrous and unwieldy to a degree, involves only the solution of one differential equation by a device quite within the compass of anyone possessing a knowledge of the bare elements of the calculus to employ. The second feature is in the magnitude of the energy evolved, which, weight for weight of matter changing, surpasses that evolved in the most exothermic chemical changes known, from one hundred thousand to a million times. Manifested in the form of rays, by their fluorescent, photographic, or ionising power capable of being put into evidence in almost inconceivably minute amount, changes are capable of being followed, and by the electroscope accurately measured, which would conceivably require to continue for millions of years before they could be experimentally detected by chemical or even by spectroscopic methods. The disintegration of the single atom is ascertainable, for example, in the spinthariscope of Sir William Crookes, where each

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of the scintillations separately visible is due to the impact of a single a-particle on the zinc sulphide screen. On the same principle, methods have been developed and are in regular use for counting the number of atoms disintegrating per minute, whereas to the spectroscope at least 3.1013 atoms as a minimum must be present, 25,000 times as many atoms as there are human beings alive in the world, before any element can be so detected. By the most curious compensation, almost of the nature of a providential dispensation which some may have found difficult to believe, the quantity of matter of itself is not of importance in investigating radioactive change. The methods depend on the rate of emission of energy, and this is proportional to the quantity of the changing element multiplied by its rate of change. In the disintegration series, the various members accumulate in quantities inversely proportional to the rates of change, and so it comes about that all changes within the series are equally within the scope of the method whether, as in the case of the parent elements, they involve periods surpassing the most liberal estimates of the duration of geological time or, as in the case of the C'members, are estimated to run their course in a time so short that light itself can travel but a very few millimetres, before the next change overtakes the changing atom.

The condition of radioactive equilibrium in which the quantities of the successive products assume the above stationary ratio is of course entirely different from chemical equilibrium, and is the condition in which for each member of the series except the first as much is produced as changes further in the unit of time.

The foregoing applies so long as the changes continue. When they are finished and it is a question of ascertaining the ultimate products, the

PRODUCTION OF HELIUM AND LEAD

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task may be likened to that of searching for a meteor which a moment before lit up the heavens and now has vanished into the night.

THE ULTIMATE PRODUCTS.

It is a matter for surprise that in all radioactive changes so far studied there appear to be only two ultimate products, helium and lead, the former constituting the a-particles and the latter being produced both by uranium and thorium, withal, as we now know, not the same lead 'n the two cases. There are sufficient experimental reasons for doubting whether the disintegration of an atom into more nearly equal parts would be within range of detection by any of the known methods. A heavy atom like oxygen, for example, if expelled as a radiant particle, might not attain sufficient velocity to ionise gases, or, even if it did, the range over which the ionisation would extend, as we know from the ionisation produced by the recoil atoms, would be extremely small. It must be a matter for comment, however, that hydrogen never appears in these changes, as, if it were produced, it would almost certainly be as easy to ascertain as helium. It has always seemed to me a possibility that some genetic connection may exist, after all, between thorium and uranium, although I have never been able to frame even a possible mode of so connecting these two elements. With a difference of atomic weight of six units, it is impossible to pass from one to the other by addition or expulsion of helium atoms alone.

Both with regard to helium and lead, the composition of radioactive minerals gave the first clue to the identity of the ultimate products. After the discovery of radioactivity and the elucidation of its nature, the fact that helium was found only

in minerals containing uranium and thorium assumed a totally new interpretation, borne out by the spectroscopic proof of the production of helium from radium by Sir William Ramsay and myself, and later from actinium, polonium, and even from uranium and thorium, all at the rates to be expected from radioactive data. The identification of the a-particle with helium, after the weight of the a-particle had been shown by new physical methods to be four times that of the hydrogen atom, was accomplished by enclosing the radium emanation in a glass tube thin-walled enough to allow the a-particle to go through, but perfectly impervious to the passage of gas. In these circumstances, helium in spectroscopically detectable quantity was proved by Rutherford to make its appearance outside the tube.

Such confirmations by the spectroscope, welcome and gratifying as they are, are nevertheless in a sense subsidiary to the main problem, namely, the task of unravelling the complicated series of changes into its individual steps, and the characterisation by their radioactivity of the several intermediate members of the series, such as by the determination of their periods and the physical constants of the radiation a-, B-, or y, to which they give rise. The determination of their chemical character, although equally important, was only later fully accomplished.

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THE RADIATIONS. In the successive radioactive changes, aB-particles are expelled, one a-particle per atom disintegrating for each change, although for the B-particles our knowledge is less exact. In some cases, certainly, although these are exceptional, B-particles seem to be expelled along with a-particles.

NATURE OF THE RADIATIONS

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The a-particle is an atom of helium charged with two atomic charges of positive electricity, or, as we should now say, is the helium nucleus, deprived of the two electrons which are combined with it in the helium atom. The B-particle is the negative electron, and when expelled with sufficiently high velocity is accompanied with y-rays. The latter are X-rays of exceedingly short wave-length, varying from 1-3 to 0-1 Ångström units. A connection exists between the speed of the change and the speed of the particles expelled, and the more rapid the change the faster in general and the more penetrating are the attendant a-or B-particles. In the case of the a-particle, an empirical logarithmic relation, known as the Geiger-Nuttall relation, enables us to calculate approximately the period of the changing element from the velocity or range of the a-particle, and vice versa, and by this means periods too long or too short to be directly measurable have been estimated. In the case of the B-rays, no definite quantitative law has yet been made out, but it is clear that a similar relationship must exist. One of the important corollaries is that changes much slower than the slowest known, namely, those of uranium and thorium, would probably not be detectable, as, even were a- or B-particles expelled, they would be of too low velocity probably to ionise gases or show fluorescent or photographic actions. Indeed, for mesothorium-I and actinium this appears to be the case. No detectable radiation is expelled, although the products conform to what would occur

1 The shortest wave-length so far resolved by the crystal reflection method is 0.072 Ă. in the spectrum of the y-rays of radium-C. Ishino and Rutherford have recently concluded, however, that the main r-radiation of radium-C must have a wavelength lying between 0-02 and 0.007 A. (Phil. Mag., 1917, [vi.] 33, 129 ; 34, 153).

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