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Gamma Rays

Gamma Rays

Soon after nuclear radioactivity was first detected in 1896, it was found that at least three distinct types of radiation were being emitted. The most penetrating nuclear radiation was called a gamma ray (\(\gamma \) ray) (again a name given because its identity and character were unknown), and it was later found to be an extremely high frequency electromagnetic wave.

In fact, \(\gamma \) rays are any electromagnetic radiation emitted by a nucleus. This can be from natural nuclear decay or induced nuclear processes in nuclear reactors and weapons. The lower end of the \(\gamma \text{-ray}\) frequency range overlaps the upper end of the X-ray range, but \(\gamma \) rays can have the highest frequency of any electromagnetic radiation.

Gamma rays have characteristics identical to X-rays of the same frequency—they differ only in source. At higher frequencies, \(\gamma \) rays are more penetrating and more damaging to living tissue. They have many of the same uses as X-rays, including cancer therapy. Gamma radiation from radioactive materials is used in nuclear medicine.

This figure shows a medical image based on \(\gamma \) rays. Food spoilage can be greatly inhibited by exposing it to large doses of \(\gamma \) radiation, thereby obliterating responsible microorganisms. Damage to food cells through irradiation occurs as well, and the long-term hazards of consuming radiation-preserved food are unknown and controversial for some groups. Both X-ray and \(\gamma \text{-ray}\) technologies are also used in scanning luggage at airports.


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