The law of radioactive decay is probably the most important law of radioactivity. When a nucleus undergoes decay through the emission of an alpha particle or a beta electron, it transforms: this allows for the conversion of radium into radon, for instance, or of tritium into helium. In such processes, however, the number of atoms in the radioactive substance inexorably dwindles. Simultaneously, however, the number of emissions per second also goes down. The decay rate is known as the activity of a particular sample, and is directly related to the number of nuclei present.
If the nucleus regains stability after having emitted a particle, the form of decay law is simple to understand: much like a currency which, every year, loses some percentage points of its ever-decreasing value. Any decay of this type is known as ‘exponential decay’, the mathematics of which are very well understood. A convenient measure of radioactive decay is a period of time known as half-life; the amount of time taken for a given sample of a substance to halve. The half-life of any substance is a characteristic property of its nucleus, and does not change.
If the daughter nucleus (the end-result of the radiation process) is itself radioactive, then the form of decay is more complex to understand and analyse. Nevertheless, like any other such process, an eventual radioactive equilibrium is reached.
A few grams of any substance already contain millions of billions of billions of atoms; even in the smallest possible sample the number of radioactive nuclei is inconceivably great. As a result, the radioactivity is always calculated on the basis of huge numbers; even for the least radioactive of materials.