An alpha particle is a positively charged particle with absolute value of charge 2e, where e is the elementary charge. An α-particle is in fact the nucleus of the helium-4 isotope, consisting of two protons and two neutrons, thus having a mass close to 4 u (u stands for unified atomic mass unit). More precisely: mα = 4.001 506 179 127 u.
Discovered and named (1899) by Ernest Rutherford, α-radiation was used by him and coworkers in experiments that probed the structure of atoms in thin metallic foils, work that resulted in the first conception of the atom as a heavy nucleus with light electrons orbiting the nucleus (1909–1911). Later Rutherford and collaborators bombarded nitrogen by α-particles, changing it to oxygen, producing in 1919 the first artificially nuclear transmutation.
In 1899 Rutherford determined several properties of the "Uranium rays" (thus named because the most common uranium isotope, 238U, is an α emitter and uranium salts were used as source of α-radiation), but at that time the cause and origin of the radiation emitted by uranium was an enigma. He discovered that there were two kinds of radiation involved, which he called α and β radiation. In retrospect, the nuclear reactions in the uranium salt likely to have been involved were:
Beta-radiation arises from the "daughter" element thorium (Th) that becomes protactinium (Pa) upon emission of a negative elementary charge,
Ten years later Rutherford knew the nature of the α-particle: Hans Geiger and he wrote a paper on its nature and charge, in which it was explained that α-particles are helium atoms that have lost their negative charge. Note that it was not known yet in 1908 that an atom consists of a nucleus plus orbiting electrons, but the existence of atoms had been firmly established at that time.
- ↑ NIST CODATA Retrieved 12 June 2009
- ↑ E. Rutherford, Uranium Radiation and the Electrical conduction Produced by it, Phil. Mag., vol. 47, p. 109 (1899)
- ↑ E. Rutherford and H. Geiger, The Charge and Nature of the α-particle, Proc. Royal Soc. vol. A 81, p. 162–174 (1908). doi Subscription required
 External link
Copy of Rutherford's 1899 paper Retrieved June 12, 2009.