Gamow Explains Radioactive Alpha-Decay with Quantum Tunneling (Great Events from History II: Science and Technology Series)
Article abstract: Gamow used the newly established quantum mechanics to explain the puzzling phenomenon of radioactive alpha-decay.
Summary of Event
George Gamow’s 1928 achievement was a theoretical explanation of the phenomenon of radioactive alpha-decay. The newly established quantum mechanics served as his theoretical basis. Beginning from 1898, Ernest Rutherford and his assistants studied radioactivity most successfully. They classified the phenomenon and clarified many important phenomenological regularities. The alpha-particles, the heaviest of all three types of radioactive emissions, are positively charged; in fact, they are the atomic nuclei of the inert gas helium. Yet, all atomic nuclei are not alpha-radioactive. Only the heavy ones can emit alpha-particles, which are usually of uniform kinetic energy characteristic of the parent species of nuclei. The kinetic energy of alpha-particles ranges from 4 to 9.5 MeV (millions of electronvolts).
Radioactivity is a probabilistic phenomenon. All radioactive nuclei change as a result of one or more of the three types of disintegration. Yet, when disintegration occurs to one particular nucleus, it is unpredictable. It may happen instantly or it may occur in the remote future. Some nuclei (isotopes) disintegrate rapidly, others disintegrate slowly. The probabilistic character of the phenomenon required physicists to use statistical concepts such as the...
(The entire section is 1965 words.)
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