Physics 2000 Science Trek Isotopes & Radioactivity

Isotopes

Atoms of the same element can have different numbers of neutrons; the different possible versions of each element are called isotopes. For example, the most common isotope of hydrogen has no neutrons at all; there's also a hydrogen isotope called deuterium, with one neutron, and another, tritium, with two neutrons.

Hydrogen
Deuterium
Tritium

If you want to refer to a certain isotope, you write it like this: AXZ. Here X is the chemical symbol for the element, Z is the atomic number, and A is the number of neutrons and protons combined, called the mass number. For instance, ordinary hydrogen is written 1H1, deuterium is 2H1, and tritium is 3H1.

How many isotopes can one element have? Can an atom have just any number of neutrons?

No; there are "preferred" combinations of neutrons and protons, at which the forces holding nuclei together seem to balance best. Light elements tend to have about as many neutrons as protons; heavy elements apparently need more neutrons than protons in order to stick together. Atoms with a few too many neutrons, or not quite enough, can sometimes exist for a while, but they're unstable.

I'm not sure what you mean by "unstable." Do atoms just fall apart if they don't have the right number of neutrons?

Well, yes, in a way. Unstable atoms are radioactive: their nuclei change or decay by spitting out radiation, in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves.



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