What is Beta Radiation?

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

Beta Decay

Beta decay is when an unstable atomic nucleus decays (radioactively) by emitting a beta particle; when the beta particle is an electron, it is β decay, and when a positron, β+ decay.

Beta rays, as a distinct component of the rays given off in radioactivity, were discovered by Rutherford, in 1899, just a few years after radioactivity itself was discovered (in 1896). However, this is beta minus decay … the discovery of beta plus decay (by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1934) came after the discovery of the positron (in cosmic rays, in 1932) and the (then) controversial ‘invention’ of the neutrino (by Pauli, in 1931) to account for the continuous energy spectrum of electrons in beta decay. It was also in 1934 that Fermi published – in Italian and German (Nature considered the idea too speculative!!) – his theory of beta decay (for more details on this, check out this Hyperphysics page).

In beta minus decay, a neutron changes into a proton, antineutrino, and electron; this conversion is due to the weak interaction (or weak force) … a down quark (in the neutron) becomes an up quark and emits a W boson (one of three bosons which mediate the weak interaction), which then decays into an electron and an antineutrino.

Beta plus decay – which is also known as inverse beta decay – involves the conversion of a proton to a neutron, positron, and neutrino.

So why do isolated neutrons decay (but those in stable nuclei, and those in neutron stars, don’t)? And why are isolated protons stable, but those in certain radioactive nuclei not? It’s all down to energy … if one state (an isolated neutron, say) has a higher energy than another (proton plus electron plus antineutrino), then the first will decay into the second (the baryon number of the two states must be the same, ditto lepton number, and so on).

There is also a rare double beta decay, in which two beta particles are emitted; it has been observed, in some unstable isotopes, as predicted. There is one kind of double beta decay – called neutrino-less double beta decay (the image above is from the COBRA Project, one study of this) – which is being studied intensely (though no such decay has yet been observed), because it may be one of the very few easily opened windows into physics beyond the Standard Model (see this WIPP page for more details).

Berkeley Lab has a neat Guide to the Nuclear Wallchart (subtitled “You don’t need to be a Nuclear Physicist to understand Nuclear Science“!) on beta decay, and this Ohio University page – Alpha and beta decay – puts more technical meat on the bare overview bones.

Pushing the Polite Boundaries of Science About Dark Matter is a Universe Today story which has a tangential reference to beta decay (it’s in the comments!).

Are there relevant Astronomy Cast episodes? Sure! Nucleosynthesis: Elements from Stars, The Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, and Antimatter.