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If someone were foolish and/or brave enough to build a device to focus the alpha decay products from a radioactive sample, then point it at their tongue through their open mouth, would it taste sour, assuming there were sufficient helium nuclei?

On one hand, I can imagine the eletro-negativity of the alpha decay products being high enough that it would act as an acid and trigger the sour-response in the taste bud.

On the other hand, I can imagine it not tasting like anything for the two following reasons:

  1. The helium nucleus might quickly gain electrons and become inert before it had a chance to trigger a neural response

  2. The helium nucleus might cause enough damage to the taste buds to render them ineffective

I know this is a bit of a silly question, but what would alpha-decay taste like?

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    $\begingroup$ @JonCuster I was thinking about rewording that... I simply meant, "a large enough quantity helium nuclei" $\endgroup$ – TheCatWhisperer Jul 30 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough, but alphas aren't protons, hence my question. I don't see how an ionized alpha particle would act as an acid. Sure, it wants to grab somebody's spare electron, but that isn't an acid. $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jul 30 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but they contain protons, and no electrons to balance them out. Acids like to grab electrons from other chemicals. However, if you do not believe a helium nucleus would act like an acid, seems like that would be a good start to an answer ;) $\endgroup$ – TheCatWhisperer Jul 30 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @TheCatWhisperer: When people ask for clarification in comments, the thing to do is to edit the question, not answer in comments. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jul 30 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ All nuclei contain protons. Most contain neutrons as well... $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Jul 30 at 21:09
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You are likely thinking of protons having a sour taste, since we experience H$^{+}$ as sour (actually, it is H$_3$O$^+$ in water). However, alpha particles either zip through the sensory cells and just act as ionizing radiation or slow down and then behave like tasteless helium.

Apparently ionizing radiation does produce a metallic taste when it is strong enough, perhaps due to breaking down lipids. There may be an ozone smell too. A strong alpha source might achieve that.

(There may be other effects too. Depletion of some types of taste sensory cells is likely: radiation therapy commonly affects taste acuity. Charged particles can trigger neural firing too.)

I am more curious about the taste of a proton beam. It might be sour, but most likely just acts as intense ionizing radiation. Anatoli Bugorski did experience it as brightness, but it did not pass through his mouth as far as I know.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I was thinking, if H+ is sour, perhaps He+ is very sour. Thanks for the thoughtful answer $\endgroup$ – TheCatWhisperer Jul 30 at 21:14
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No. As pointed out by Jon Custer in comments, an alpha particle is not a proton. It's a helium nucleus, and helium is chemically unreactive, so it has no taste.

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