In the 1850s, scientists (such as Faraday) began experimenting with high-voltage electrical discharges in tubes filled with rarefied gases. It was later found that these discharges created an invisible, penetrating form of very high frequency electromagnetic radiation. This radiation was called an X-ray, because its identity and nature were unknown.
As described in Things Great and Small, there are two methods by which X-rays are created—both are submicroscopic processes and can be caused by high-voltage discharges. While the low-frequency end of the X-ray range overlaps with the ultraviolet, X-rays extend to much higher frequencies (and energies).
X-rays have adverse effects on living cells similar to those of ultraviolet radiation, and they have the additional liability of being more penetrating, affecting more than the surface layers of cells. Cancer and genetic defects can be induced by exposure to X-rays. Because of their effect on rapidly dividing cells, X-rays can also be used to treat and even cure cancer.
The widest use of X-rays is for imaging objects that are opaque to visible light, such as the human body or aircraft parts. In humans, the risk of cell damage is weighed carefully against the benefit of the diagnostic information obtained. However, questions have risen in recent years as to accidental overexposure of some people during CT scans—a mistake at least in part due to poor monitoring of radiation dose.
The ability of X-rays to penetrate matter depends on density, and so an X-ray image can reveal very detailed density information. This figure shows an example of the simplest type of X-ray image, an X-ray shadow on film. The amount of information in a simple X-ray image is impressive, but more sophisticated techniques, such as CT scans, can reveal three-dimensional information with details smaller than a millimeter.
The use of X-ray technology in medicine is called radiology—an established and relatively cheap tool in comparison to more sophisticated technologies. Consequently, X-rays are widely available and used extensively in medical diagnostics. During World War I, mobile X-ray units, advocated by Madame Marie Curie, were used to diagnose soldiers.
Because they can have wavelengths less than 0.01 nm, X-rays can be scattered (a process called X-ray diffraction) to detect the shape of molecules and the structure of crystals. X-ray diffraction was crucial to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins in the determination of the shape of the double-helix DNA molecule.
X-rays are also used as a precise tool for trace-metal analysis in X-ray induced fluorescence, in which the energy of the X-ray emissions are related to the specific types of elements and amounts of materials present.