Tag Archives: demonstration

Teaching about Radioactivity without Sources⤴

from @ stuckwithphysics.co.uk

Radioactivity is an exciting, mysterious and scary part of physics for many students, often because their ideas about ‘radiation’ are closely associated with their ideas about superheroes. Frequently my class discussions with students to gauge their prior knowledge about radiation and radioactivity come round to Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics creations – ‘Spiderman’ and  ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

After explaining that these are works of fiction, with little basis in fact, it was for many years traditional to then introduce students to the realities of radioactivity using Geiger-Muller (GM) tubes, scaler-timers, a range of radioactive sources and absorbers. These allowed teachers to demonstrate the nature of the three types of radiation, their random nature, range in air, and the materials required to absorb them.

Geiger Muller Counter

These days fewer schools have radioactive sources – they are expensive to buy, require careful storage and handling and must be regularly checked to ensure they are safe to use. As a consequence of this many students never see this equipment being used, and are more likely to see an interactive virtual demo, such as ‘RadiationLab’ from Visual Simulations.


Of course, there are plenty of YouTube videos that will also get these points across, but they’re still not the same as students seeing these effects with their own eyes. As I work in a school with no radioactive sources, I have had to make extensive use of videos and software simulations to demonstrate the properties of the three types of radiation. I always go to the trouble to show students the apparatus, as much to allow them to see the real kit, but also because it allows us to detect and measure background radiation.

In the last week I performed an experiment I read about a number of years ago in a SSERC bulletin, which uses an electrostatically charged balloon to attract radioactive particles from the air onto its surface. This experiment is detailed HERE on their website.


(reproduced with permission of SSERC)

The charged balloon accumulates decay products from the Uranium/Radium decay sequence, which in turn decay as shown in the table below.

decay table

(reproduced with permission of SSERC)

Whilst the balloon is collecting radionuclides, the apparatus – a djb Microtech ALBA interface and GM tube – was used to measure the background radiation. The graph produced clearly shows the random nature of the detected background radiation, which averaged out at a level of 16.3 counts per minute.


Background radiation graph

The balloon is burst and placed below the GM tube, then left to log the radiation over a period of a few hours. The background level is subtracted from the count obtained for the balloon and a graph of the balloon’s activity can be plotted.

balloon decay

Balloon radiation graph

Again the raw data fluctuates greatly, reflecting the randomness of the decay process, but it clearly shows an elevated level of activity, around ten times greater than background. Using the software’s built-in line fitting algorithm, an exponential decay curve was fitted to the data.

A copy of this graph was given to each pupil, and used to determine the half-life of the radiation detected from the balloon.

analysed graph

Analysed graph

Having measured the time for a number of sections of the graph where the measured activity had reduced by half, pupils then calculated a mean value for the half life of 37.3 minutes. This is most likely a combination of the decays of Pb-214 and Bi-214.

For those with ALBA interfaces and software, but without the GM-tube, I would be happy to provide you with the raw .atb files for use with your own classes. These could not be uploaded to this blog, but can be accessed HERE via Google Drive.

Newton’s Rings⤴

from @ stuckwithphysics.co.uk

I’ve been trying to show my AH pupils all of the experimental work for Unit 3 during this week, as it’s the last week of the course before their NAB next week.

Having gone over much of the theory before Easter and encouraging them to cover the theory on Scholar, I set up a few of the interference experiments – Young’s Slits with microwaves and using a He-Ne laser, which are both nice and obvious and relatively reliable (for physics demos). We took a few measurements and used them to find the wavelength for the microwaves and the slit separation, d, for the laser experiment.

We also used the travelling microscope to measure the slit separation, using a flexi-cam and projector to show both the view down the scope and the readings on the Vernier scale.

Optimistically, I decided to try the same set up for Thin Wedge Fringes and Newton’s Rings – demos which are not so nice and not so obvious and, as I’ve found in the past, can be awkward to set up. Worse still, they must be observed through a microscope, ideally a travelling microscope to allow measurements of fringe spacing to be taken.

The thin wedge fringes worked pretty well and we measured the fringe spacing, using it to calculate the thickness of the wedge. And it all worked!

Continuing to ride my luck, I had a go at Newton’s Rings, using our ancient, somewhat chipped Griffin apparatus. After setting it up, I had a look through the eyepiece and, to my very great surprise, saw the brightest, clearest Newton’s Rings fringes I have ever seen.

To my further surprise, it all looked great through the flexicam-projector, so much so that I took a picture and tweeted about what I’d been doing. One reply, from John Burk (@Occam98) asked how I’d set it up.

So, here goes…..

Griffin Newton’s Rings apparatus -
plano convex lens placed convex side down on glass plate
Beam splitter (sloping glass plate) reflects light from sodium lamp (in blue lamp holder) down on to lens
Travelling microscope above for viewing interference pattern through beam splitter.

The images below show how the flexicam was connected to the travelling microscope, using a collar to align the camera and eyepiece lenses, and in turn connected, via the S-Video input, to a Sony LCD projector.

It’s a very rare physics lesson where all of the experiments work, let alone first time. Luckily, when I needed to get through a lot of experiments to gather up the loose ends of the unit, that’s exactly what happened. After all the effort of getting all the apparatus together and set up, getting such excellent images for Newtons’ Rings was a great way to finish my lesson, and coincidentally the Advanced Higher course.

All downhill to the exam now…..