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This article describes the scientific meaning. For the computer game, see Half-Life.

For a quantity subject to exponential decay, the half-life is the time required for the quantity to fall to half of its initial value. (This article is a narrow discussion of half-life. For phenomena where half-life is applied, see "Related topics" below.)

Quantities subject to exponential decay are commonly denoted by the symbol N. (This convention suggests a decaying number of discrete items. This interpretation is valid in many, but not all, cases of exponential decay.) If the quantity is denoted by the symbol N, the value of N at a time t is given by the formula:

N(t) = N_0 e^{-\lambda t} \,


  • N0 is the initial value of N (at t=0)
  • λ is a positive constant (the decay constant).

When t=0, the exponential is equal to 1, and N(t) is equal to N0. As t approaches infinity, the exponential approaches zero.

In particular, there is a time t_{1/2} \, such that:

N(t_{1/2}) = N_0\cdot\frac{1}{2}

Substituting into the formula above, we have:

N_0\cdot\frac{1}{2} = N_0 e^{-\lambda t_{1/2}} \,
e^{-\lambda t_{1/2}} = \frac{1}{2} \,
- \lambda t_{1/2} = \ln \frac{1}{2} = - \ln{2} \,
t_{1/2} = \frac{\ln 2}{\lambda} \,

Thus the half-life is 69.3% of the mean lifetime.

Related topics

Last updated: 02-08-2005 16:27:01
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12