What Is Radioactive?

Radiation, nuclear weapons or X-rays. Common terms we find in our life, however, do we know what exactly they are?


When we call a substance radioactive, it is because the substance is constantly emitting particles. In the Periodic Table, any atomic number that is bigger than 83 (including 83, bismuth) is a radioactive element.

Before get into this, let’s first understand what an atom actually does in a radioactive scenario.

An atom consists of a nucleus and electrons. Electrons are the small orbiting orbs that have negative charge, whilst a nucleus, contains neutrons and protons closely packed together. Protons on the other hand, have positive charge. The negative charge of electrons and positive charge of protons offset each other, which provides stable chemical properties, or a definite chemical form.

Neutrons have no charge and they do not affect chemical properties of an atom. Adding or removing neutrons from an atom affect the mass and the diffuse speed. However, an atom with different neutron number become isotopes, which periodically, are radioactive.

Radioactivity is the situation when the nucleus becomes unstable. If generally, an atom becoming unstable is when the atom starts to merge with other atoms, creating new elements of the previous rather stable situation. Radioactivity is inside an atom.

The neutrons, which carry no charge, have a balance with the protons, with an inherent force to pack themselves closely together.

This force is not electromagnetic, unlike the force between electrons and protons.

The protons together, due to each of them being positively charged, have repulsive force against each other. This repulsive force is so humongous that every second of it protons can push each other away in a speed of 12874 km/s.

However, in order to achieve a nucleus, which protons and neutrons strongly bind together, there must be some sort of force that keeps them so packed together.

One of the four fundamental physical forces: The Strong Force.

Strong Force relates to the components of nucleons–quarks. It is said that these quarks’ force on each other binds protons together, and also neutrons. The Strong Force is described as colors. Gluons are something that jump between each quark and leads to the force exchange between quarks, thus make quarks stable and protons, neutrons stable.

The Color Force here, tries to offset each quark’s color, the ultimate is to make them colorless. The basic colors are red, green and blue. Gluons in the process act as the color neutralizer, which also carries the energy.

It is also worth mentioning that the Weak Force (one of four fundamental forces of physics) also functions in the quark scale world. Weak Force only comes into effect when quarks are extremely close to each other. Leptons and hadrons, things that perform in Weak Force.

Protons, neutrons, made of quarks can be altered inherently by Weak Force. Weak Force determines quarks’ flavors, i.e. ups and downs. When quarks’ flavors changed, the identity of its made-up changed, i.e. a proton can be turned into a neutron and vice versa.


Second, when a nucleus becomes unstable, the nucleus would start to disintegrate. For example, a 80 neutrons and 60 protons nucleus would break down to small particles of, say, 2 protons and 2 neutrons, and these particles are constantly emitting away so long the nucleus becomes stable again. This process is called radiation, or radioactivity.

However, the particles emitted away do not have negative charge on them, which means there are no electrons attached on them. So when they contact new environment with new elements, they would start to merge together, attracting new electrons from other elements in the environment, and all of this, becomes radioactive. This is why we consider radiation being harmful to human bodies, because they can simply merge with your body cells’ molecules to create new elements, which can be harmful. You don’t want some heavy metal in your body right? 

The emission of particles has three types: Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

  • Alpha radiation is slow, heavy and short-distance. Nucleons, basically protons and neutrons without electrons.
  • Beta radiation is fast, light and medium-distance. Electrons.
  • Gamma radiation is very fast, wave and long-distance. Pure energy, is not affected by magnetic field.

The emission distance is usually short for radioactive substances, the point of avoiding radioactivity is avoiding the particles that are scattered around the atmosphere. The particles can enter your body by inhaling, or digesting. Or physically around you outside of your body.

Nuclear weapons can create a radius of radioactive dust. The dust consists of billions, or trillions of these radioactive atoms that are constantly decaying, which means they emit particles without electrons around them while they float around in the air or enter water and land on soil. If human bodies contact these substances, they become detrimental.

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