Desperate remedies for beta-decay
Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 16-19
In a desperate attempt to explain the unexpected energy distribution of electrons in beta-decay, Niels Bohr suggested rejecting one of the most fundamental physical laws describing the decay as “a departure from the law of energy conservation in nuclear disintegrations”.
In 1930, Wolfgang Pauli proposed an alternative solution via an open letter to colleagues, including Geiger and Meitner. He began, “Dear Radioactive Ladies and Gentlemen…” and told them he had hit upon a “desperate remedy”. He proposed a new particle which was neutral and had spin-½ - what we now know as the neutrino, though he originally named the hypothetical entity the neutron.
His letter went on report that his predecessor, Peter Debye, had counselled him not to focus his energy on the beta-decay spectrum problem arguing: “Oh, it’s best not to think about it at all – like the new taxes.”
A year later, Chadwick discovered the particle now referred to as the neutron. Pauli’s particle was subsequently renamed the neutrino which means ‘little neutral one’ in Italian, after a joke in a conversation between Enrico Fermi and Edoardo Amaldi.