Science, Tech, Math › Science What Is Radioactivity? What is Radiation? Quick Review of Radioactivity Share Flipboard Email Print Yagi Studio/Getty Images Science Chemistry Chemical Laws Basics Molecules Periodic Table Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Physical Chemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Chemistry Expert Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Updated March 03, 2019 Unstable atomic nuclei will spontaneously decompose to form nuclei with higher stability. The decomposition process is called radioactivity. The energy and particles which are released during the decomposition process are called radiation. When unstable nuclei decompose in nature, the process is referred to as natural radioactivity. When the unstable nuclei are prepared in the laboratory, the decomposition is called induced radioactivity. There are three major types of natural radioactivity: Alpha Radiation Alpha radiation consists of a stream of positively charged particles, called alpha particles, which have an atomic mass of 4 and a charge of +2 (a helium nucleus). When an alpha particle is ejected from a nucleus, the mass number of the nucleus decreases by four units and the atomic number decreases by two units. For example: 23892U → 42He + 23490Th The helium nucleus is the alpha particle. Beta Radiation Beta radiation is a stream of electrons, called beta particles. When a beta particle is ejected, a neutron in the nucleus is converted to a proton, so the mass number of the nucleus is unchanged, but the atomic number increases by one unit. For example: 23490 → 0-1e + 23491Pa The electron is the beta particle. Gamma Radiation Gamma rays are high-energy photons with a very short wavelength (0.0005 to 0.1 nm). The emission of gamma radiation results from an energy change within the atomic nucleus. Gamma emission changes neither the atomic number nor the atomic mass. Alpha and beta emission are often accompanied by gamma emission, as an excited nucleus drops to a lower and more stable energy state. Alpha, beta, and gamma radiation also accompany induced radioactivity. Radioactive isotopes are prepared in the lab using bombardment reactions to convert a stable nucleus into one which is radioactive. Positron (a particle with the same mass as an electron, but a charge of +1 instead of -1) emission isn't observed in natural radioactivity, but it is a common mode of decay in induced radioactivity. Bombardment reactions can be used to produce very heavy elements, including many which don't occur in nature.