Ionising Radiation
Quantum and Nuclear

Sorting out words and ideas

Teaching Guidance for 14-16 Supporting Physics Teaching

Radioactivity, radioactive material and radiation

Wrong Track: Radioactivity was carried across the sea by the wind from the damaged nuclear reactor.

Wrong Track: Radiation was carried across the sea by the wind from the reactor.

Right Lines: Radioactive material/dust was carried across the sea by the wind from the damaged reactor.

Teaching the underlying meanings

Thinking about the learning

It is quite common for students to use the three terms radioactivity, radioactive material and radiation interchangeably.

Thinking about the teaching

In addressing this teaching and learning challenge it's not just a matter of learning new words. The underlying meanings of the terms need to be developed:

  • Radioactivity is the general name for the phenomenon. There are parallels here with use of the word electricity (See the SPT: Electric circuits topic). Just as electricity does not flow around a circuit, radioactivity is not given out by a radioactive material. In fact (as with electricity), once the term Radioactivity has been used as a title for this topic, students will not really need to use it again. Some teachers go so far as to ban its further use.
  • The radioactive material is the bulk substance, such as isotopes of uranium, which emits radiation.
  • The radiations are often emitted with distinctive properties: alpha, beta and gamma radiations are three that do have such distinctive properties.
Ionising Radiation
is used in analyses relating to Radioactive dating
can be analysed using the quantity Half-Life Decay Constant Activity
features in Medical Physics
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