Submitted by ChemPRIME Staff on Wed, 12/08/2010 - 23:56

Just prior to the turn of the twentieth century, additional observations were made which contradicted parts of Dalton’s atomic theory. The French physicist Henri BecquerelThe SI unit of radioactive disintegration; one disintegration per second; abbreviated Bq. (1852 to 1928) discovered by accident that compounds of uranium and thorium emitted rays which, like rays of sunlight, could darken photographic films. Becquerel’s rays differed from light in that they could even pass through the black paper wrappings in which his films were stored.

Detecting Radiation

Although themselves invisible to the human eye, the rays could be detected easily because they produced visible light when they struck phosphors such as impure zinc sulfide. Such luminescence is similar to the glow of a psychedelic poster when invisible ultraviolet (black light) rays strike it. Further experimentation showed that if the rays were allowed to pass between the poles of a magnet, they could be separated into the three groups shown in the following figure.

Behavior of α particles, β particles, and γ rays upon passing through a magnetic field.

Properties of α, β and γ Particles

Because little or nothing was known about these rays, they were labeled with the first three letters of the Greek alphabet. Upon passing through the magnetic field, the alpha rays (α rays) were deflected slightly in one direction, beta rays (β rays) were deflected to a much greater extent in the opposite direction, and gamma rays (γ rays) were not deflected at all. Deflection by a magnet is a characteristic of electrically charged particles (as opposed to rays of light). From the direction and extent of deflection it was concluded that the β particles had a negative charge and were much less massive than the positively charged α particles. The γ rays did not behave as electrically charged particles would, and so the name rays was retained for them. Taken together the α particles, β particles, and γ rays were referred to as radioactivityThe release of particles and/or energy from an unstable nucleus., and the compounds which emitted them as radioactiveDescribes a substance that gives off radiation‐alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays‐by the disintegration of its nucleus..

The three types of particle differ greatly in penetrating power. While γ particles may penetrate several millimeters of lead, β particles are may penetrate 1 mm of aluminum, but α particles don't penetrate thin paper, or a centimeter or two of air. The high penetrating power of γs does not make them more dangerous, because if they penetrate matterAnything that occupies space and has mass; contrasted with energy. they don't cause changes in it. On the other hand, if an α source is a few inches away, it is not harmful at all; but if an α emitter like radon is inhaled, the &alpha particles are very dangerous. Because they don't penetrate matter, their energyA system's capacity to do work. is absorbed in the alveoli of the lung where it causes molecular damage, sometimes leading to lung cancer.


Study of radioactive compounds by the French chemist Marie CurieA unit of radioactive decay; equal to 3.70 x 1010 disintegrations per second; abbreviated Ci. (1867 to 1934) revealed the presence of several previously undiscovered elements (radium, polonium, actinium, and radon). These elements, and any compounds they formed, were intensely radioactive. When thorium and uranium compounds were purified to remove the newly discovered elements, the level of radioactivity decreased markedly. It increased again over a periodThose elements from a single row of the periodic table. of months or years, however. Even if the uranium or thorium compounds were carefully protected from contamination, it was possible to find small quantities of radium, polonium, actinium, or radon in them after such a time. To chemists, who had been trained to accept Dalton’s indestructible atomsThe smallest particle of an element that can be involved in chemical combination with another element; an atom consists of protons and neutrons in a tiny, very dense nucleus, surrounded by electrons, which occupy most of its volume., these results were intellectually distasteful. The inescapable conclusion was that some of the uranium or thorium atoms were spontaneously changing their structures and becoming atoms of the newly discovered elements. A change in atomic structure which produces a different element is called transmutation. Transmutation of uranium into the more radioactive elements could explain the increased emission of radiation by a carefully sealed sample of a uranium compound. During these experiments with radioactive compounds it was observed that minerals containing uranium or thorium always contained lead as well. This lead apparently resulted from further transmutation of the highly radioactive elements radium, polonium, actinium, and radon. The lead found in uranium ores always had a significantly lower atomic weightThe average mass of the naturally occurring isotopes of an element, taking into account the different natural abundances of the isotopes. Expressed relative to the value of exactly 12 for carbon-12; also called atomic mass. than lead from most other sources (as low as 206.4 compared with 207.2, the accepted value). Lead associated with thorium always had an unusually high atomic weight. Nevertheless, all three forms of lead had the same chemical properties. Once mixed together, they could not be separated. Such results, as well as the reversed order of elements such as Ar and K in the periodic tableA chart showing the symbols of the elements arranged in order by atomic number and having chemically related elements appearing in columns., implied that atomic weight is not the fundamental determinant of chemical behavior.