“I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my system blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, I’m radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, I’m radioactive, radioactive”
– Imagine Dragons, “Radioactive”
This song can inspire some powerful imagery: post-apocalyptic worlds, revolutionaries preparing for a battle, an illegal stuffed animal fighting ring. The singer sounds so tough, so edgy- he’s radioactive! That’s dangerous, right? But guess what? You’re radioactive, too.
First, what does it mean to be radioactive? Something that is radioactive contains atomic nuclei that are unstable and lose energy through a process called radioactive decay. When the nucleus undergoes radioactive decay, it turns into something new, trying to become more stable. You could then say that the song “Radioactive” is a metaphor, showing that the singer is transforming into someone new. It’s deep, I know.
There are several types of radioactive decay, some of which are listed below:
- alpha decay- an alpha particle is emitted from a nucleus
- beta plus decay- a positron and an electron neutrino are emitted from a nucleus
- beta minus decay- an electron and an electron antineutrino are emitted from a nucleus
- gamma decay- an excited nucleus releases energy in the form of a gamma ray
- electron capture- a nucleus captures an electron and emits a neutrino
- spontaneous fission- a nucleus breaks into two or more smaller parts
(Some definitions: An alpha particle is made of two neutrons and two protons (essentially a helium nucleus). A positron is a subatomic particle with the same mass as an electron, just with a positive charge. Electron neutrinos and antineutrinos are subatomic particles with no charge. Gamma rays are made of photons, elementary particles moving at the speed of light.)
Radioactive material is used in a variety of applications. Uranium-235, which fissions, is used in U.S. nuclear power reactors to produce heat to generate steam to turn a steam turbine to turn an electric generator to produce electricity. Americium-241, which alpha decays, is used in smoke detectors. The alpha particles ionize, or charge, the air in the smoke detector, creating a small current. Smoke particles block the alpha particles from ionizing the air, causing the current to drop and setting off the alarm. Carbon-14, which beta minus decays, is used in radiocarbon dating to determine how old something is.
Is radioactive decay dangerous? Well, there isn’t a simple yes or no answer. Something that undergoes radioactive decay emits ionizing radiation, particles or waves that carry energy that can free electrons from atoms or molecules. That energy could interact with DNA in cells, damaging them. With enough radiation, cells could die or mutate. Enough damage can result in radiation sickness (such as nausea, hair loss, or hemorrhaging), cancer, or death.
That makes radiation sound scary, but don’t worry. You’re exposed to background radiation every day. Natural background radiation comes from cosmic rays from space, radon gas, and radioactive material in the ground. The radioactive material in the ground ends up in buildings and living things. (Plants absorb the radioactive material. When the plants are eaten, the radioactive material moves up through the food chain.) Artificial background radiation includes nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power waste, but most artificial radiation comes from medical purposes such as x-rays.
This is good, because like I said before, you’re radioactive. Organic matter contains carbon-14 (which beta minus decays) and potassium-40 (which beta minus decays, beta plus decays, or undergoes electron capture). If you are a human from the planet Earth, you are organic matter and you consume organic matter. Thus, you are literally radioactive.
Keep calm and science on.