A half-life is the interval of time required for one-half of the atomic nuclei of a radioactive sample to decay (change spontaneously into other nuclear species by emitting particles and energy), or, equivalently, the time interval required for the number of disintegrations per second of a radioactive material to decrease by one-half.
The radioactive isotope cobalt-60, which is used for radiotherapy, has, for example, a half-life of 5.26 years. Thus after that interval, a sample originally containing 8 g of cobalt-60 would contain only 4 g of cobalt-60 and would emit only half as much radiation. After another interval of 5.26 years, the sample would contain only 2 g of cobalt-60. Neither the volume nor the mass of the original sample visibly decreases, however, because the unstable cobalt-60 nuclei decay into stable nickel-60 nuclei, which remain with the still-undecayed cobalt.
Half-lives are characteristic properties of the various unstable atomic nuclei and the particular way in which they decay. Alpha and beta decay are generally slower processes than gamma decay. Half-lives for beta decay range upward from one-hundredth of a second and, for alpha decay, upward from about one one-millionth of a second. Half-lives for gamma decay may be too short to measure (around 10-14 second), though a wide range of half-lives for gamma emission has been reported.
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.