In 1899 E. Rutherford, then of Montreal, discovered that the radiation from uranium, thorium and radium was complex. (Rutherford, "Radio-activity" (2nd edition), Cambridge, 1905.) Three types of rays were soon distinguished. The first, named by Rutherford alpha-rays, are absorbed by thin metal foil or a few centimetres of air. When examined by measurements of the deflections caused by magnetic and electric fields, the alpha-rays are found to behave as would positively electrified particles of the magnitude of helium atoms possessing a double ionic charge and travelling with a velocity about one-tenth that of light. The second or beta type of radiation is much more penetrating. It will pass through a considerable thickness of metallic foil, or many centimetres of air, and still affect photographic plates or discharge electroscopes. Magnetic and electric forces deflect beta-rays much more than alpha-rays, indicating that, although the speed is greater, approaching in some cases within five per cent. that of light, the mass is very much less. The beta-rays must be streams of particles, identical with those of cathode rays, possessing the minute mass of J.J. Thomson's corpuscle, some eight-hundredth part of that of a hydrogen atom. A third or gamma type of radiation was also detected. More penetrating even than beta-rays, the gamma-rays have never been deflected by any magnetic or electric force yet applied. Like Rontgen rays, it is probable that gamma-rays are wave-pulses in the luminiferous aether, though the possibility of explaining them as flights of non- electrified particles is before the minds of some physicists.
Still another kind of radiation has been discovered more recently by Thomson, who has found that in high vacua, rays become apparent which are absorbed at once by air at any ordinary pressure.
The emission of all these different types of radiation involves a continual drain of energy from the radio-active body. When M. and Mme Curie had prepared as much as a gramme of radium chloride, the energy of the radiation became apparent as an evolution of heat. The radium salt itself, and the case containing it, absorbed the major part of the radiation, and were thus maintained at a temperature measurably higher than that of the surroundings. The rate of thermal evolution was such that it appeared that one gramme of pure radium must emit about 100 gramme-calories of heat in an hour. This observation, naturally as it follows from the phenomena previously discovered, first called attention to the question of the source of the energy which maintains indefinitely and without apparent diminution the wonderful stream of radiation proceeding from a radio-active substance. In the solution of this problem lies the point of the present essay.
In order to appreciate the evidence which bears on the question we must now describe two other series of phenomena.
It is a remarkable fact that the intensity of the radiation from a radio- active body is independent of the external conditions of temperature, pressure, etc. which modify so profoundly almost all other physical and chemical processes. Exposure to the extreme cold of liquid air, or to the great heat of a furnace, leaves the radio-activity of a substance unchanged, apparent exceptions to this statement having been traced to secondary causes.
Then, it is found that radio-activity is always accompanied by some chemical change; a new substance always appears as the parent substance emits these radiations. Thus by chemical reactions it is possible to separate from uranium and thorium minute quantities of radio-active materials to which the names of uranium-X and thorium-X have been given. These bodies behave differently from their parents uranium and thorium, and show all the signs of distinct chemical individuality. They are strongly radio-active, while, after the separation, the parents uranium and thorium are found to have lost some of their radio-activity. If the X-substances be kept, their radio-activity decays, while that of the uranium or thorium from which they were obtained gradually rises to the initial value it had before the separation. At any moment, the sum of the radio-activity is constant, the activity lost by the product being equal to that gained by the parent substance. These phenomena are explained if we suppose that the X-product is slowly produced in the substance of the parent, and decays at a constant rate. Uranium, as usually seen, contains a certain amount of uranium-X, and its radio-activity consists of two parts--that of the uranium itself, and that of the X product. When the latter is separated by means of its chemical reactions, its radio-activity is separated also, and the rates of decay and recovery may be examined.
Radium and thorium, but not uranium, give rise to radio-active gases which have been called emanations. Rutherford has shown that their radio- activity, like that of the X products, suffers decay, while the walls of the vessel in which the emanation is confined, become themselves radio- active. If washed with certain acids, however, the walls lose their activity, which is transferred to the acid, and can be deposited by evaporation from it on to a solid surface. Here again it is clear that the emanation gives rise to a radio-active substance which clings to the walls of the vessel, and is soluble in certain liquids, but not in others.
We shall return to this point, and trace farther the history of the radio- active matter. At present we wish to emphasise the fact that, as in other cases, the radio-activity of the emanation is accompanied by the appearance of a new kind of substance with distinct chemical properties.