Wikipedia article on alpha radiation says

Alpha particles were first described in the investigations of radioactivity by Ernest Rutherford in 1899

I can't access the paper containing this discovery (because it is still behind a paywall 120 years after it was first published). Perhaps Rutherford et al. didn't yet know what they were looking at so just called it "alpha" radiation? Only later did we understand this was due to a helium nucleus?

Another related question is why do proton and neutron radiation not get special names, where they not as easy to observe by the zinc sulfide detection method that gave off a flash of light, or by cloud chambers?

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    $\begingroup$ Protons are not spontaneously emitted by nuclei. Neutrons were not discovered until 1932, well after the naming of alpha, beta, and gamma. $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jul 1 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @JonCuster. Can we only get exposed to proton radiation from man made particle accelerators or can some natural radiation sources produced them like direct or indirect cosmic rays for example? $\endgroup$ – AJP Jul 1 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ Solar wind and cosmic rays have a component of protons. But their sources are astronomical objects, with protons quite common (such as our sun). Different mechanics. $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jul 2 at 0:13

This is history of science and history of education. You have to realize that after the enlightment all the university educated men had to go through learning greek and latin. The Greek alphabet stars with α β γ .. , i.e. alpha beta gamma. It just shows that Rutherford wanted to use his Greek giving the labeling of the unknown phenomenon he was studying, α, β, and γ came later as its order shows.

It was later that they found out that α, β were not radiation, but particles. Then nuclear physics started to be really and it had no meaning to keep on labeling wrongly the nuclear decay products as the theory started to develop.


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