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What is Gamma Decay vs Beta Decay – Radioactivity – Definition

Gamma Decay vs Beta Decay. This article summarizes main differences between gamma and beta decay, which have different nature. Beta particles are high-energy electrons, while gamma rays are high-energy photons. Radiation Dosimetry

Gamma decay or γ decay represents the disintegration of a parent nucleus to a daughter through the emission of gamma rays (high energy photons). This transition (γ decay) can be characterized as:

Gamma Decay - Gamma Radioactivity - definition

As can be seen, if a nucleus emits a gamma ray, atomic and mass numbers of daughter nucleus remain the same, but daughter nucleus will form different energy state of the same element. Note that, nuclides with equal proton number and equal mass number (thus making them by definition the same isotope), but in a different energy state are known as nuclear isomers. We usually indicate isomers with a superscript m, thus: 241mAm or 110mAg.

Iodine 131 - decay scheme
Iodine 131 – decay scheme

In most practical laboratory sources, the excited nuclear states are created in the decay of a parent radionuclide, therefore a gamma decay typically accompanies other forms of decay, such as alpha or beta decay. Typically after a beta decay (isobaric transition), nuclei usually contain too much energy to be in its final stable or daughter state.

Gamma rays are high-energy photons with very short wavelengths and thus very high frequency. Gamma rays from radioactive decay are in the energy range from a few keV to ~8 MeV, corresponding to the typical energy levels in nuclei with reasonably long lifetimes. As was written, they are produced by the decay of nuclei as they transition from a high energy state to a lower state. Since the gamma rays are in substance only a very high-energy photons, they are very penetrating matter and are thus biologically hazardous. Gamma rays can travel thousands of feet in air and can easily pass through the human body.

In contrast to alpha and beta radioactivity, gamma radioactivity is governed by an electromagnetic interaction rather than a weak or strong interaction. As in atomic transitions, the photon carries away at least one unit of angular momentum (the photon, being described by the vector electromagnetic field, has spin angular momentum of ħ), and the process conserves parity.

Special Reference: W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467.


Beta decay or β decay represents the disintegration of a parent nucleus to a daughter through the emission of the beta particle. This transition (β decay) can be characterized as:

Beta Decay - Beta Radioactivity - definition

If a nucleus emits a beta particle, it loses an electron (or positron). In this case, the mass number of daughter nucleus remains the same, but daughter nucleus will form different element.

Beta particles are high-energy, high-speed electrons or positrons emitted by certain types of radioactive nuclei such as potassium-40. The beta particles have greater range of penetration than alpha particles, but still much less than gamma rays. The beta particles emitted are a form of ionizing radiation also known as beta rays. There are the following forms of beta decay:

  • Negative Beta Decay – Electron Decay. In electron decay, a neutron-rich nucleus emits a high-energy electron (β particle). The electrons are negatively charged almost massless particles Due to the law of conservation of electric charge, the nuclear charge must increase by one unit. In this case, the process can be represented by: 
  • Positive Beta Decay – Positron Decay. In positron decay, a proton-rich nucleus emits a positron (positrons are antiparticles of electrons, and have the same mass as electrons but positive electric charge), and thereby reduces the nuclear charge by one unit. In this case, the process can be represented by: An annihilation occurs, when a low-energy positron collides with a low-energy electron.
  • Inverse Beta Decay – Electron Capture. Electron capture, known also as inverse beta decay is sometimes included as a type of beta decay, because the basic nuclear process, mediated by the weak interaction, is the same. In this process, a proton-rich nucleus can also reduce its nuclear charge by one unit by absorbing an atomic electron. 

Theory of Beta Decay – Weak Interaction

Beta decay is governed by the weak interaction. During beta decay one of two down quarks changes into an up quark by emitting a W boson (carries away a negative charge). The W boson then decays into a beta particle and an antineutrino. This process is equivalent to the process, in which a neutrino interacts with a neutron.

theory of beta decay - weak interaction

As can be seen from the figure, the weak interaction changes one flavor of quark into another. Note that, the Standard Model counts six flavours of quarks and six flavours of leptons. The weak interaction is the only process in which a quark can change to another quark, or a lepton to another lepton (flavor change). Neither the strong interaction nor electromagnetic permit flavour changing. This fact is crucial in many decays of nuclear particles. In the fusion process, which, for example, powers the Sun, two protons interact via the weak force to form a deuterium nucleus, which reacts further to generate helium. Without the weak interaction, the diproton would decay back into two hydrogen-1 unbound protons through proton emission. As a result, the sun would not burn without it since the weak interaction causes the transmutation p -> n.

In contrast to alpha decay, neither the beta particle nor its associated neutrino exist within the nucleus prior to beta decay, but are created in the decay process. By this process, unstable atoms obtain a more stable ratio of protons to neutrons. The probability of a nuclide decaying due to beta and other forms of decay is determined by its nuclear binding energy. For either electron or positron emission to be energetically possible, the energy release (see below) or Q value must be positive.


Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See also:

Radioactive Decay

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