Some element isotopes have half-lives that are as short as a couple minutes to an hour. Does that mean you can watch it (or catch it on video) turn into 2 different elements? What would something like that look like?

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    $\begingroup$ It does not look like a thing at all. One atom of it you can't see, and many atoms of it you can't have. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2021 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ No ! Because elements having a short half-life are extremely radioactive. They emit such a huge amount of radiations per second that the camera trying to register it will be quickly destroyed. $\endgroup$
    – Maurice
    Mar 7, 2021 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ There are people who know exactly what radioactive decay looks like. Unfortunately most of them are dead since high intensity radiation (from short lived isotopes) is really dangerous. Just look at the first responders to the Chernobyl accident. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Mar 7, 2021 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Maurice - and yet nuclear and particle physicists watch things decay just fine all the time. You build the detectors to measure what you are looking for without dying. Think CERN, or even simple time-of-flight detectors to measure in-flight decay. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 7, 2021 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ Related now.tufts.edu/news-releases/… $\endgroup$
    – Alchimista
    Mar 8, 2021 at 10:36

1 Answer 1


If you somehow magicked into existence a macroscopic solid cube of some radioisotope with a half-life in the range of minutes to hours, you would probably see the cube become blindingly white-hot then mostly vanish in less than a minute, before most of the sample has even had time to decay.

Large amounts of very radioactive isotopes release enough energy to vaporise themselves. This already happens to some extent with polonium-210. A single gram of Po-210 generates 140 W continuously just by existing, a fact which can be gainfully exploited in radioisotope thermoelectric generators. That in itself is kind of magic.

Due to the shorter half-life of your isotopes, a gram of these materials would pump out hundreds of kilowatts of thermal energy at the beginning. Even assuming most of this energy is not contained within the cube, it would heat up by hundreds of degrees every second until it reaches equilibrium at a few thousand degrees (due to black-body emission). Not only would it boil off as any metal would at these temperatures, but the radioactive decay also releases energetic particles which tear apart the solid as they shoot outwards, pulverising the cube at an atomic level from the inside.


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