What is Beta Radiation?

Article written: 18 Jan , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

Beta radiation is radiation due to beta particles, which are electrons (or, sometimes, positrons); mostly, when you come across the words ‘beta radiation’, what is meant is what is produced by beta decay (radioactive decay which produces beta particles … either electrons or positrons).

Within a few years of Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity (in 1896), its heterogeneous nature was discovered … and the three (then) known components given the memorable names alpha radiation, beta radiation, and gamma radiation. And, in 1900, Becquerel showed that beta radiation was composed of particles which have the same charge-to-mass ratio as electrons (which had been discovered only a few years’ earlier). The realization – by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1934 – that some beta radiation is composed of positrons, rather than electrons, had to wait until positrons themselves were discovered (in 1932).

Some fun facts about beta radiation:

* beta radiation is in between alpha and gamma in terms of its penetrating power; typically it goes a meter or so in air

* like all kinds of radioactive decay, beta decay occurs because the final state of the nucleus (the one decaying) has a lower energy than the initial one (the difference is the energy of the emitted beta particle and neutrino)

* beta decay involves only the weak interaction (or force), unlike alpha and gamma decay

* the key to the specifics of beta decay is the emission of a neutrino (or antineutrino), postulated by Pauli (in 1931) and combined into a model by Fermi, in 1934 (though it wasn’t until 1956 that the neutrino was detected, and the 1960s for the existence of carriers of the weak force – the three bosons W, W+, and Z0 – to be hypothesized).

* beta radiation has the characteristics we observe it to have because key constants in the weak interaction have the values they have (no theory in physics predicts what those values are … yet); had those values been just a teensy bit different in the early universe, we would not be here today (this is part of an idea called the anthropic principle).

Here are some of the Universe Today stories that are related to beta radiation New Insights on Magnetars, Superstrings Could Be Detectable As They Decay, and Don’t ‘Supermassive’ Me: Black Holes Regulate Their Own Mass.

Two Astronomy Cast episodes are well worth a listen, as they provide further insights into beta radiation The Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, and Nucleosynthesis: Elements from Stars.

Sources: EPA, Wikipedia

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