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RADIOACTIVITY

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Originally appearing in Volume V22, Page 794 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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RADIOACTIVITY. The subject of radioactivity deals with phenomena exhibited by a special class of bodies of high atomic weight of which uranium, thorium, radium and actinium are the best known examples. These substances possess the property of spontaneously emitting radiations of a special character which are able to penetrate through matter opaque to ordinary light. The beginning of this subject dates from 1896, and was an indirect consequence of the discovery of the X rays made a few months before by Rontgen. It was known that the production of X rays in a vacuum tube was accompanied-by a strong phosphorescence of the glass, and, it occurred to several investigators that ordinary substances made phosphorescent by visible light might emit a penetrating radiation similar to X rays. Following out this idea, H. Becquerel (I),1 a distinguished French physicist, exposed amongst other substances a phosphorescent compound of uranium, uranium- 1 These numbers refer to papers noted under References (below). potassium sulphate, enveloped in paper beneath a photographic plate. A weak photographic effect was obtained. This was shown to be due to a penetrating radiation capable of passing through sheets of matter opaque to ordinary light. Further investigation showed that this photographic action was exhibited by all compounds of uranium and by the metal itself, and had nothing to do with phosphorescence. It was shown equally if the uranium were kept in darkness and did not vary appreciably with time. Becquerel showed that the rays from uranium like X rays were capable of discharging a body whether positively or negatively electrified. A uranium compound brought close to the charged plate of a gold leaf electroscope causes a rapid collapse of the gold leaves. This property of uranium, and also of the radioactive bodies in general, has supplied a delicate and quantitative method of accurate comparison of the intensity of the radiations from substances under varying conditions. A modified form of gold leaf electroscope has come into general use for comparison of the radioactivity of substances. Rutherford (2) made a systematic examination of the discharging effect produced by the rays from uranium and showed that it was due to the production of charged carriers or ions in the volume of the gas through which the radiations pass. In an electric field, the positive ions travel to the negative electrode and vice versa, thus causing a discharge of the electrified body. If a sufficiently strong field is used, the ions are all swept to the electrodes before appreciable loss of their number can occur by recombination. The rate of discharge then reaches a steady maximum value which is not altered by a large increase in voltage. This maximum current through the gas is called the saturation current. The ions produced in gases by the rays from uranium and other radioactive substances are in general identical with those produced by X rays, and the mechanism of conductivity of the gas is very similar in both cases (see CONDUCTION, ELECTRIC: § Through Gases). Some time after Becquerel's discovery, Mme Curie (3) made a systematic examination of the electric method of a large number of chemical elements and their compounds to test whether they possessed the " radioactive " property of uranium. Only one other element, thorium, was found to show this effect to a degree comparable with that of uranium—a result independently observed by Schmidt. Mme Curie examined the activity of the various compounds of uranium and found that their radioactivity was an atomic property, i.e. the activity was proportional to the amount of the element uranium present, and was independent of its combination with other sub-stances. In testing the activity of the minerals containing uranium, Mme Curie found that the activity was always four to five times as great as that to be expected from their contentof uranium. If the radioactivity were an atomic phenomenon, this could only be explained by the presence in these minerals of another substance more active than uranium itself. Relying on this hypothesis, Mme Curie made a chemical examination of uranium minerals in order to try to separate this new radio-active substance. In these experiments, the Austrian Government generously provided Mme Curie with a ton of the residues from the State manufactory of uranium at Joachimstahl, Bohemia. At that place "there are extensive deposits of pitchblende or uranite which are mined for the uranium. After separation of the latter, the residues are three to five times as radioactive weight for weight as the uranium. From this residue Mme Curie separated a substance far more radio-active than uranium, which she called polonium in honour of the country of her birth. This substance is usually separated with bismuth in the mineral, but by special methods can be partly separated from it. A further examination revealed the presence of a second radioactive substance which is normally separated with the barium, to which the name " radium was given. This name was happily chosen, for in the pure state radium bromide has a very great activity—about two million times as great as an equal weight of uranium. By means of successive fractionations of the chloride, the radium was gradually concentrated, until finally the radium was obtained so that the barium lines showed very faintly. The atomic weight was found by Mme Curie to be 225. In a recent redetermination, using a larger quantity of o•4 grams of pure radium chloride, Mme Curie (4) found the atomic weight to be 226.2. Thorpe (5) using a smaller quantity obtained a value 227. The spectrum of the purified sample of radium chloride obtained by Mme Curie was first examined by Demarcay. It was found to have a characteristic spark spectrum of bright lines analogous in many respects to the spectra of the alkaline earths. Giese! (6) found that pure radium bromide gives a brilliant carmine colour to the bunsen flame. The flame spectrum shows two broad bright bands in the orange-red. There is also a line in the blue-green and two weak lines in the violet. Giesel (q) has taken an active part in the preparation of pure radium compounds, and was the first to place preparations of pure radium bromide on the market. He found that the separation of radium from the barium mixed with it proceeded much more rapidly if the crystallizations were carried out using the bromide instead of the chloride. He states that six to eight crystallizations are sufficient for an almost complete separation. From the chemical point of view radium possesses all the characteristic properties of a new element. It has a definite atomic weight, a well-marked and characteristic spectrum, and distinct chemical properties. Its comparative ease of separation and great activity has attracted much attention to this substance, although we shall see that very similar radioactive properties are possessed by a large mber of distinct substances. Radium emits three distinct types of radiation, known as the a, ,3 and y rays, of which an account will be given later. It produces in addition a radioactive emanation or gas which is about ioo,000 times as active weight for weight as radium itself. The emanation released from to milligrams of pure radium bromide causes a glass tube into which it is introduced to phosphoresce brightly. A brilliant luminosity is produced in phosphorescent substances like zinc sulphide, willemite and barium platino-cyanide when introduced into a tube containing the emanation. The radium emanation, a more detailed account of which will be given later, has proved of the greatest utility in radioactive experiments. The property of radium of producing the emanation has been utilized as a very delicate and certain method, not only of detection but of estimation of small quantities of radium. This " emanation method " depends upon the introduction of the emanation, liberated from a sub-stance by boiling or heating, into a suitable electroscope. The rate of discharge of the electroscope due to the emanation affords a quantitative measure of the amount of radium present. In this way, it is not difficult to determine with certainty the "ppg 4 ,, RAM I ION I, . ~ 8 11 0 2.
End of Article: RADIOACTIVITY
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