Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

The Weak Nuclear Force; Beta Decay

All the nuclear processes we've discussed so far have involved rearrange-ments of neutrons and protons, with no change in the total number of neutrons or the total number of protons. Now consider the proportions of neutrons and protons in your body and in the planet earth: neutrons and protons are roughly equally numerous in your body's carbon and oxygen nuclei, and also in the nickel and iron that make up most of the earth. The proportions are about 50-50. But the only chemical elements produced in any significant quantities by the big bang were hydrogen (about 90%) and helium (about 10%). If the early universe was almost nothing but hydrogen atoms, whose nuclei are protons, where did all those neutrons come from?

The answer is that there is another nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, that is capable of transforming neutrons into protons and vice-versa. Two possible reactions are

n → p + e- + ν[bar] (electron decay)


p → n + e+ + ν . (positron decay)

(There is also a third type called electron capture, in which a proton grabs one of the atom's electrons and they produce a neutron and a neutrino.)

Whereas alpha decay and fission are just a redivision of the previously existing particles, these reactions involve the destruction of one particle and the creation of three new particles that did not exist before.

There are three new particles here that you have never previously encountered. The symbol e+ stands for an antielectron, which is a particle just like the electron in every way, except that its electric charge is positive rather than negative. Antielectrons are also known as positrons. Nobody knows why electrons are so common in the universe and antielectrons are scarce. When an antielectron encounters an electron, they annihilate each other, and this is the fate of all the antielectrons that are produced by natural radioactivity on earth.

The notation ν stands for a particle called a neutrino, and ν[bar] means an antineutrino. Neutrinos and antineutrinos have no electric charge (hence the name).

We can now list all four of the known fundamental forces of physics:



strong nuclear force

weak nuclear force

The other forces we have learned about, such as friction and the normal force, all arise from electromagnetic interactions between atoms, and therefore are not considered to be fundamental forces of physics.

Decay of 212Pb

In a reaction like this one, the electron flies off at high speed (typically close to the speed of light), and the escaping electrons are the things that make large amounts of this type of radioactivity dangerous. The outgoing electron was the first thing that tipped off scientists in the early 1900s to the existence of this type of radioactivity. Since they didn't know that the outgoing particles were electrons, they called them beta particles, and this type of radioactive decay was therefore known as beta decay. A clearer but less common terminology is to call the two processes electron decay and positron decay.

The antineutrino pretty much ignores all matter, because its lack of charge makes it immune to electrical forces, and it also remains aloof from strong nuclear interactions. Even if it happens to fly off going straight down, it is almost certain to make it through the entire earth without interacting with any atoms in any way. It ends up flying through outer space forever. The neutrino's behavior makes it exceedingly difficult to detect, and when beta decay was first discovered nobody realized that neutrinos even existed. We now know that the neutrino carries off some of the energy produced in the reaction, but at the time it seemed that the total energy afterwards (not counting the unsuspected neutrino's energy) was greater than the total energy before the reaction, violating conservation of energy. Physicists were getting ready to throw conservation of energy out the window as a basic law of physics when indirect evidence led them to the conclusion that neutrinos existed.

Discussion Questions

A In the reactions n → p + e- + ν[bar] and p → n + e+ + ν, verify that charge is conserved. In beta decay, when one of these reactions happens to a neutron or proton within a nucleus, one or more gamma rays may also be emitted. Does this affect conservation of charge? Would it be possible for some extra electrons to be released without violating charge conservation?
B When an antielectron and an electron annihilate each other, they produce two gamma rays. Is charge conserved in this reaction?

Last Update: 2010-11-11