A certain number of natural radioactive nuclei are still present on Earth, even though their half-lives are particularly short when compared to our planet’s age. These radioisotopes are the descendants of three heavy nuclei with very long half-lives: uranium 235 (with a half-life of 0.7 billion years), uranium 238 (which lives for 4.47 billion years) and thorium 232 (with a half-life of 14.0 billion years).
These three ‘patriarchs’, to extend the metaphor of the radioactive family, were all present in the proto-star: the cloud that eventually condensed to form our Sun, the Earth, and the planets. Each of the three is the ancestor of a distinct family of natural radioactive elements, perhaps the most important of which is that of uranium 238.
A nucleus of uranium 238 decays by alpha emission to form a daughter nucleus, thorium 234. This thorium in turn transforms into protactinium 234, and then undergoes beta-negative decay to produce uranium 234. This last isotope changes slowly (with a half-life of 245,000 years) into thorium 230, yet another unstable nucleus.
Any such decay chain is only stopped by the formation of a stable nucleus. This occurs at the fourteenth generation of the uranium 238 family, when lead 206 is finally produced. The two other families, those formed from uranium 235 and thorium 232, end respectively with the creation of lead 207 and lead 208, two other stable isotopes of lead.
The half-lives are all extremely variable, and it is difficult to represent a range of timescales going from individual seconds to billions of years. In this sense the lineage of a nucleus resembles the flow of water over mountains and plains: torrential at one point and lazily winding at another.
As is normal for the heaviest nuclei, alpha decay is particularly common in all three decay chains. With each emission causing a loss of two protons and two neutrons, however, the neutron : proton ratio increases as we move down the family tree. As a result, beta decay is needed to even up the balance. In the Uranium-238 lineage for example, the first alpha decay is followed by two successive beta decays transforming a thorium 234 nucleus into uranium 234.
Alpha decay causes a loss of four nucleons whereas beta decay has no effect on the number of nucleons present. This is why descendant nuclei always have a multiple of four nucleons less than their ancestors: as can be seen with uranium 238 (*).
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