In this series of posts, I provide a deeper look at common applications of exponential functions that arise in an Algebra II or Precalculus class. In the previous posts in this series, I considered financial applications. In today’s post, I’ll discuss radioactive decay and the half-life formula.

While these formulas are easy to state, not many high school teachers are aware of the physical principles from which they arise. The basic idea is that if amount of a radioactive substance (carbon-14, uranium-235, brain cells) is present, the rate at which the substance decays is proportional to the amount of the substance currently present. This can be rewritten as a differential equation, since the rate at which the substance decays is . So we find that

The negative sign on the right-hand side isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s a reminder that amount present decreases as time increases.

This differential equation can be solved in several ways, including separation of variables (below, I’ll be sloppy with the constant of integration for the sake of simplicity):

To solve for the constant, we usually use the initial condition , a number that must be given in the problem:

Plugging back in, we obtain the final answer

Of course, students in Algebra II or Precalculus (or high school chemistry) are usually not ready to understand this derivation using calculus. Instead, they are typically given the final formula and are expected to use this formula to solve problems. Still, I think it’s important for the teacher of Algebra II or Precalculus to be aware of how the origins of this formula, as it only requires mathematics that’s only a year or two away in these students’ mathematical development.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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