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In alpha decay, an atom spits out two protons and two neutrons. However, if it does not lose two electrons as well, then it is no longer an atom, it is an ion. How does this work? In beta decay, an atom spits out an electron and an anti- neutrino from one of the neutrons in the nucleus, while retaining the proton from it, but if this is true, and the atom does not somehow gain two electrons, then there are two protons more than electrons and it is no longer an atom. How does this work? Also, when I was reading the answers to the other questions about the types of decay and how they work, I noticed that there was some mention of an electron cloud. What is it, and how is it scientifically valid to assume that it is really there?
Question Date: 2015-04-21
Answer 1:

These are all great questions. Let’s start by first defining what an ion is.

An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving the atom or molecule a net positive or negative electrical charge.

So the important thing to remember is that an ion IS an atom, and that is not a bad thing. It just means it has a different number of electrons than it normally would.

So for the case of alpha decay, the atom loses a helium nucleus which has a +2 charge. Leaving behind an atom with a -2 charge. This is not a problem. The helium that escaped is just a helium atom with the wrong number of electrons. It will eventually slow down and react with other atoms and become a neutral helium atom. Similarly the starting atom will react with some atoms around it and lose the 2 extra electrons.

The same situation is true for beta decay where the resulting atom eventually will take an electron from the atoms around it and become neutral again.

Finally let’s talk about clouds.

Humidity is a measure of how much water is in the air. But I’m sure you know that clouds are mostly water. So even though water is everywhere in the air, there are places where there is a lot more water than others. This is what we call a cloud.

An electron cloud is similar in that an electron can be anywhere but there are places around atoms where it is more likely to be. These places where the electron likes to hang out are what we call electron clouds. The location and shape of these electron clouds can be figured out by using physics and math.

Answer 2:

As I understood it (not being nuclear physicist), the decaying atom effectively spits out a helium atom. However, because radioactive decay is so violent and energetic (the decaying atom will also emit gamma rays!), the energy will ionize it anyway.

The electron cloud is the electrons orbiting the atom. They don't orbit the way that planets orbit the sun due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Their locations are diffuse in space. As a result, it behaves more like a cloud.

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