the spectrum of the Gamma and Alpha decays are both discrete, i.e. the $\alpha$-particles and the $\gamma$-rays take on only discrete values when emitted from a decaying nucleus.

Why is it then, that the $\beta^{\pm}$ can take on continuous values?

The main thing that distinguishes the beta decay from the other two is, that it is a three body problem, i.e. the nucleus does not only decay into an electron/positron, but also into a electron-neutrino/antineutrino. I don't see yet how this immediately implies that the spectrum of the electrons is continuous though.

The way I understand the two body decays is, that the initial nucleus spontaneously decays into the two bodies, i.e. a smaller nucleus and a gamma or alpha particle. As the energy levels in both the nuclei are quantized, only certain values for the energy of the photon and the Helium core are allowed, sine Energy and momentum need to stay conserved.

Does the third particle change things in the way that there basically are two things (i.e. the electron and the neutrino in the beta decay) that are not restricted by an inner energy level hierarchy in the way the nuclei are, thus allowing the energy given by the nuclei to be split arbitrarily (and continuously) between the electron and the neutrino?

If this is the wrong explanation, please correct me.

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    $\begingroup$ Hyperphysics has a pretty good explanation of this. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2014 at 15:22

2 Answers 2


At first, consider two particles decay:

$A\rightarrow B + e^-$ Where A is initially rest. So $\vec{p_B}+\vec{p_{e^-}}=0$

now \begin{align} \frac{p_B^2}{2m_B}+\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}&=E_{released} \\ \frac{p_{e^-}^2}{2m_B}+\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}&=E_{released} \tag{1} \end{align}

see here you have uncoupled equation (equ.1) for $p_{e^-}$ .. So, solving above (equ.1) you will get a fixed $p_{e^-}$. Hence the energy($\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}$) of the $\beta$ particle is always fixed in the two body $\beta$ decay. (you can find $p_{B}$ too using the momentum conservation formula)

At first, consider three particles decay:

$A\rightarrow B + e^-+\nu_e$ Where A is initially rest. So $\vec{p_B}+\vec{p_{e^-}}+\vec{\nu_e}=0$

so \begin{align} \frac{p_B^2}{2m_B}+\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}+p_{\nu_e}&=E_{released} \\ \frac{(\vec{p_{e^-}}+\vec {p_{\nu_e}})^2}{2m_B}+\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}+p_{\nu_e}&=E_{released} \tag{2} \end{align}

Now see in contrast to the two particles decay equation, here we have five unknowns $\big{(}p_{e^-},p_{\nu},p_{B},\theta\ (\rm the\ angle\ between\ \vec{p_{e^-}},\vec{p_{\nu}}),\phi\ (\rm the\ angle\ between\ \vec{p_{e^-}},\vec{p_{B}})\big)$ but four coupled equations *. so we can't solve them uniquely. That's also what happens physically. You will get different values of $p_{e^-},p_{\nu},p_{B},\theta,\phi$ satisfying the four coupled equations. Hence different $\beta$ particles will have different energy($\sqrt{p_{e^-}^2+m_{e^-}^2}$) maintaining the statistics of decay process. Hence the continuous spectra.

*The four coupled equations are equ.2 and three equations which we can get by taking Dot products of $\vec{p_{e^-}},\vec{p_{\nu}}\rm\ and\ \vec{p_{B}}$ with the momentum conservation($\vec{p_B}+\vec{p_{e^-}}+\vec{\nu_e}=0$ ) and remember they lie in a plane so two angles ($\theta\rm\ and\ \phi$) are sufficient.


You're correct: the unique thing about beta decay is that there's a three-body final state. In the reference frame where the decay takes place at rest, the daughter nucleus, beta particle, and neutrino share the momentum roughly equally, and because of the mass scales the beta and the neutrino take the bulk of the energy.

It's pretty straightforward to show that the three momenta following the decay must lie in a plane. From there if you assume an angle between the beta and the neutrino, you can find the energy of all three particles. It's not a terribly big leap from there to an estimate of the beta spectrum.

This is in contrast to two-body decays, where the final momenta in the rest frame must be equal and opposite, and so there is only one solution for momentum and energy.

There's a great book on the history of experiments on beta decay by Allan Franklin, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

  • $\begingroup$ Also the W boson is actually first emmited. Even though it is virtual it is still given some properties of the nucleus like charge and some mass(most of its mass and energy just appears) then the W decays into two particles depending on what charge the W has. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2020 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ No, a physical W boson actually is not emitted. A cascade of two-body decays would have a different energy and angular spectrum than a three-body decay. (Note that this question is about the energy spectrum of the decay.) The model is that the charged weak current mediates the decay; the virtual particles are a computational tool, and the connection between the charged weak current and the physical W bosons which can be produced at high energy is a nontrivial result. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    May 19, 2020 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ That is what I meant. Of course they are off-shell W bosons. That is why they violate energy and conservation laws. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2020 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand the point you are trying to make. The subject of this question and answer is that the three-body final state allows the beta spectrum to be continuous while energy and momentum are conserved. If you think the intermediate virtual particle really changes the situation, you should elaborate in an answer. For a great discussion on how this particular problem threw the entire idea of (microscopic) energy conservation into question, read the book linked in the answer. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    May 19, 2020 at 23:01

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