half-life, measure of the average lifetime of a radioactive substance (see radioactivity) or an unstable subatomic particle. One half-life is the time required for one half of any given quantity of the substance to decay. For example, the half-life of a particular radioactive isotope of thorium is 8 minutes. If 100 grams of the isotope are originally present, then only 50 grams will remain after 8 minutes, 25 grams after 16 minutes (2 half-lives), 12.5 grams after 24 minutes (3 half-lives), and so on. Of course the 87.5 grams that are no longer present as the original substance after 24 minutes have not disappeared but remain in the form of one or more other substances in the isotope's radioactive decay series. Individual decays are random and cannot be predicted, but this statistical measure of the great number of atoms in the sample is very accurate. The half-life of a radioactive isotope is a characteristic of that isotope and is not affected by any change in physical or chemical conditions.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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