Generally, there are four main concepts that students struggle with when thinking about radioactive decay: the spontaneity or randomness of radioactive decay, the reason isotopes are important, the concept of half-life, and knowing which system is appropriate Radioactivity: A steady but unpredictable spontaneous process Radioactivity and radioactive decay are spontaneous processes.
Students often struggle with this concept; therefore, it should be stressed that it is impossible to know exactly when each of the radioactive elements in a rock will decay.
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Statistical probablity is the only thing we can know exactly. Often students get bogged down in the fact that they don't "understand" how and why radioactive elements decay and miss the whole point of this exercise.
If they can begin to comprehend that it is random and spontaneous, they end up feeling less nervous about the whole thing. Radioactive decay involves the spontaneous transformation of one element into another.
The only way that this can happen is by changing the number of protons in the nucleus an element is defined by its number of protons. There are a number of ways that this can happen and when it does, the atom is forever changed.
There is no going back -- the process is irreversible. This is very much like popping popcorn. When we pour our popcorn kernels into a popcorn popper, the is no way to know which will pop first.
And once that first kernel pops, it will never be a kernel again And coincidentally, much yummier! Isotopes: same element, different atomic mass Often students struggle with the concept of isotopes.
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines an isotope as: "A variety of a chemical element strictly, of one particular element which is distinguished from the other varieties of the element by a different mass number but shares the same atomic number and chemical properties and so occupies the same position in the periodic table. They may ask, "What's the difference between an isotope and an atom? Isotopes of an element are atoms that all have the same atomic number or number of protons in the nucleus but have different atomic masses hence different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus.
For example, all atoms of oxygen have 8 protons in the nucleus and hence have an atomic number of 8. However, oxygen atoms can have between 8 and 10 neutrons in the nucleus and therefore the isotopes of oxygen have atomic masses of 16, 17, and 18 a.
Samarium Sm has 7 naturally occurring isotopes 3 are radioactive. Remind them that geologists only use certain radioactive isotopes to date rocks. The atoms that are involved in radioactive decay are called isotopes. In reality, every atom is an isotope of one element or another.
However, we generally refer to isotopes of a particular element e. The number associated with an isotope is its atomic mass i. The element itself is defined by the atomic number i.
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Only certain isotopes are radioactive and not all radioactive isotopes are appropriate for geological applications -- we have to choose wisely. Those that decay are called radioactive or parent isotopes; those that are generated by decay are called radiogenic or daughter isotopes.
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The unit that we use to measure time is called half-life and it has to do with the time it takes for half of the radioactive isotopes to decay see below. Half-life: a useful way of telling geologic time Half-life is a very important and relatively difficult concept for students.
Mathematically, the half-life can be represented by an exponential function, a concept with which entry-level students may not have much experience and therefore may have little intuition about it.
I find that entry-level students in my courses get stuck on the term "half-life". Even if they have been given the definition, they interpret the term to mean one-half the life of the system. Instead, it is really the lifetime of half of the isotopes present in the system at any given time. Marie and Pierre Curie. Details Problem solving in the geosciences was forever changed with the discovery of radioactivity.
Radioactive elements can be used to understand numerical age of geological materials on time scales as long as and even longer than the age of the Earth. In order to determine the age of a geologic material, we must understand the concept of half-life.
Half-life is a term that describes time. The definition is: The time required for one-half of the radioactive parent isotopes in a sample to decay to radiogenic daughter isotopes. The units of half-life are always time seconds, minutes, years, etc.
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If we know the half-life of an isotope and we can measure it with special equipmentwe can use the number of radiogenic isotopes that have been generated in.