With the worldwide angst about Japan’s nuclear situation, it’s probably a good time to review alpha and beta particles. The particles were classified by Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford, “the father of nuclear physics,” and together with gamma radiation (which is pure electromagnetic energy and not a particle form) comprised the first classically understood products resulting from radioactive decay.
- A alpha particle contains two protons and two neutrons, the nucleus of a helium atom. It carries a positive charge of two units. Alpha particles are useful in smoke detectors and thermoelectric power generators like the ones they used to use for pacemakers.
- A beta particle is a naked negatively-charged electron (or its positively-charged twin, the positron). In comparison to the alpha particle’s atomic mass of 4 units, an electron has one eight-thousandth the mass – 0.01%, or almost nothing at all.
- As suggested by the cartoon at right, beta particles have greater penetrative capability; an alpha particle can be stopped by a sheet of paper while beta particles require metal shielding.
THE GAME OF SCIENCE
Does anybody else notice a parallel here? Alpha particles are positive, massive, doubly attractive and can make you talk funny if you inhale their essence. Beta particles are negative, don’t take up a lot of space and are difficult to get rid of. The beta particle also only has one ball. Do I really have to spell it out for you?
PROPS TO THE WILLING
Was Ernest Rutherford ostensibly a hard scientist but really a crypto-anthropologist? Should Rutherford take place next to Richard Feynman as a scientist clued in to the true nature of the sexes? I don’t know and I have other research to do – but it is funny, no?
In all seriousness, it’s worth tooting Rutherford’s horn – he was a giant of his day, initiating a revolution in the atomic model so valid we still teach it to middle and high school students, observing the half-life characteristic of radioactive decay, theorizing on the existence of neutrons (later proven), splitting the atom for the first time and becoming the first person to synthetically transmute one element from another (before him only nature’s radioactive processes could do that).