Mass number

The mass number (symbol A, from the German word Atomgewicht [atomic weight]),[1] also called atomic mass number or nucleon number, is the total number of protons and neutrons (together known as nucleons) in an atomic nucleus. It is approximately equal to the atomic (also known as isotopic) mass of the atom expressed in atomic mass units. Because protons and neutrons both are baryons, the mass number A is identical with the baryon number B as of the nucleus as of the whole atom or ion. The mass number is different for each different isotope of a chemical element. Hence, the difference between the mass number and the atomic number Z gives the number of neutrons (N) in a given nucleus: N = A - Z.[2]

The mass number is written either after the element name or as a superscript to the left of an element's symbol. For example, the most common isotope of carbon is carbon-12, or 12
C
, which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons. The full isotope symbol would also have the atomic number (Z) as a subscript to the left of the element symbol directly below the mass number: 12
6
C
.[3] This is technically redundant, as each element is defined by its atomic number, so it is often omitted.

Mass number changes in radioactive decay

Different types of radioactive decay are characterized by their changes in mass number as well as atomic number, according to the radioactive displacement law of Fajans and Soddy. For example, uranium-238 usually decays by alpha decay, where the nucleus loses two neutrons and two protons in the form of an alpha particle. Thus the atomic number and the number of neutrons each decrease by 2 (Z: 92 → 90, N: 146 → 144), so that the mass number decreases by 4 (A = 238 → 234); the result is an atom of thorium-234 and an alpha particle (4
2
He2+
):[4]

238
92
U
 
→  234
90
Th
 
4
2
He2+

On the other hand, carbon-14 decays by beta decay, whereby one neutron is transmuted into a proton with the emission of an electron and an antineutrino. Thus the atomic number increases by 1 (Z: 6 → 7) and the mass number remains the same (A = 14), while the number of neutrons decreases by 1 (N: 8 → 7).[5] The resulting atom is nitrogen-14, with seven protons and seven neutrons:

14
6
C
 
→  14
7
N
 

e
 

ν
e

Beta decay is possible because different isobars[6] have mass differences on the order of a few electron masses. If possible, a nuclide will undergo beta decay to an adjacent isobar with lower mass. In the absence of other decay modes, a cascade of beta decays terminates at the isobar with the lowest atomic mass.

Another type of radioactive decay without change in mass number is emission of a gamma ray from a nuclear isomer or metastable excited state of an atomic nucleus. Since all the protons and neutrons remain in the nucleus unchanged in this process, the mass number is also unchanged.