Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.5, 671-673
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 671
Radioactive Branching Using Dice
Sarmistha Sahu
Department of Physics, Maharani Lakshmi Ammanni College for Women, Bangalore, India
Received July 7th, 2012; revised August 12th, 2012; accepted August 22nd, 2012
Dice rolling (Emeric, 1997) is a useful pedagogical tool (Arthur & Ian, 2012; Todd, Clifton, Ingrid, &
Zdravko, 2006) to introduce students to the concepts and essential features of radioactivity. It can be ex-
tended to explain radioactive branching. In the process, the students learn about half life, decay constant
and activity of a radioactive substance. Terms like stochastic processes, probability of decay, statistical
fluctuations, and mutually exclusive processes; becomes clear in this process.
Keywords: Radioactivity; Probability; Transition Rate; Half Life; Radioactive Branching
Dice rolling is being used as a pedagogical tool in schools as
well as undergraduate studies in physics, mathematics, statistics
and computer science curriculum. Students learn while they
play. Todd W. Neller et al. has used dice rolling in a dice game
Pig (Todd, Clifton, Ingrid, & Zdravko, 2006) for undergraduate
research in machine learning. Arthur Murray et al. mention that
“the ‘radioactive dice’ experiment is a commonly used class-
room analogue to model the decay of radioactive nuclei” (Ar-
thur & Ian, 2012). Simple dice rolling can unfold important
concepts elegantly.
Some radionuclides may have several different paths of de-
cay. For example, approximately 36% of Bismuth-212 decays
through alpha-emission to thallium-208 while approximately
64% of Bismuth-212 decays through beta-emission to Polo-
nium-212. Both the Thallium-208 and the Polonium-212 are
radioactive daughter products of Bismuth-212 and both decay
directly to stable Lead-208 (Tayal, 1988).
If a nucleus can decay by several different processes for
which the probabilities per unit time are λ1, λ2, λ3, ··· then the
total probability λ per unit time for decay is
 
and the half lives are related as
 
12 12 1212
11 11
T is the half-life if only process 1 was available
and so on. These are called the partial half-lives. If one of them
is shorter than the others then it is dominant in determining
Dice Used
About 100 cuboctahedron (truncated cubes with 6 square
faces and eight triangular faces) have been used for the experi-
ments (Figure 1). In this experiment one of the six square faces
(suitably marked) and all of the triangular faces represent two
unstable states. The unmarked five square faces represent the
stable state of radioactive nuclei.
The dice represents a radioactive nucleus having many en-
ergy states. One of the states is represented by the yellow-
square-face. Eight of the triangular faces represent yet another
energy state. All the eight states have the same energy (degen-
erate states). Five of the unpainted square faces represent an-
other energy state.
Experimental Procedure
By rolling the dice a large number of times quantify the
probability per throw of yellow square face “up” (λ1) and any
red triangular face “up” (λ2). (In this experiment λ1 is smaller
than λ2.) Let the yellow square face “up” represent the alpha
decay and any red triangular face “up” represent the beta decay.
For each throw t (0, 1, 2, ···), start with Nt number of dice,
roll and remove the decayed nuclei (die with the specified face
“up”). Continue with the remaining un-decayed dice till about
ten percent of the dice is left. The entire process is repeated
once for alpha decay (Figure 2), once for beta decay (Figure 3)
and once for both the processes together (Figure 4).
Figure 1.
Truncated Cube (Cuboctahedron) with three types of
faces made from 3 cm wooden cubes.
Figure 2.
The partial half life for process 1 is 3.30 throw and the decay constant is .17 per throw.
Figure 3.
The partial half life for process 2 is 4.08 throw and the decay constant is .21 per throw.
Figure 4.
The half life for both the processes is 1.82 throw and the decay constant is .38 per throw.
Results and Discussion
1. The process with shorter half life dominates. In this ex-
periment, the red triangle decay is dominant.
2. The decay constant (probabilities per unit throw) of all the
processes is equal to the sum of the decay constant of the indi-
vidual processes.
λ1 + λ2 = (.17 ± .04) + (.21 ± .07) = (.38 ± .11) and
λ = (.38 ± .07).
Decay constant was determined by plotting
ln t
vs t for the three processes.
3. The reciprocal of the half life of the total processes is
equal to the sum of the reciprocal of the partial half lives.
T and
 
12 12
.303 .245.548
4. Alpha decay is 45 % 1
and beta decay is 55 %
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
with the Cuboctahedron used.
1. The probability of one triangle up was extremely small,
hence any triangle up was chosen.
2. When the number of dice is large, throwing all the dice
together hinders the motion of the dice as they hit each other. It
is advisable to throw in small batches so that the “randomness”
is maintained.
This experiment can be done by the students as an activity
based learning. Many concepts are studied by dice rolling in
radioactivity. Simulation using different types of dice has been
demonstrated in class room to study decay constant, half life,
laws of radioactivity (Sahu, 2011). This technique has been
extended to simulate successive radioactive decay (Sahu, 2011)
and explain concepts like a) different generations (parent,
daughter…), b) change of activity of parent and daughter nuclei
with time, and c) behavior of parent and daughter activities in
special situations including “radioactive equilibrium”.
Radioactive decay and dice rolling are both stochastic. The
statistical fluctuations become obvious when the number of
dice rolled becomes smaller.
My sincere thanks to my husband Dr. R. P. Sahu for his
guidance and support in using the Microsoft Excel for tabula-
tion and graphs.
Arthur, M., & Ian, H. (2012). The “radioactive dice” experiment: Why
is the “half-life” slightly wrong? Physics Education, 47, 197.
Emeric, S. (1997). Dice shaking as an analogy for radioactive decay
and first order kinematics. Journal of C h em i ca l Education, 74, 505.
Sahu, S. (2011). Frontline, Physics, Education, 46, 255-256.
Sahu, S. (2011). Lab Experiments, 39, 3.
Tayal, D. C. (1988). Nuclear physics. Bombay: Himalaya Publishing
Neller, T. W., Presser, C. G. M., Russell, I., Markov, Z. (2006). Peda-
gogical possibilities for the dice game pig. Journal of Computing
Sciences in Colleges, 21, 149-161.
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