TheInfoList

Illustration of an emission of a gamma ray (γ) from an atomic nucleus
Gamma rays are emitted during nuclear fission in nuclear explosions.
NASA guide to electromagnetic spectrum showing overlap of frequency between X-rays and gamma rays

A gamma ray, or gamma radiation (symbol γ or ${\displaystyle \gamma }$), is a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic waves and so imparts the highest photon energy. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900 while studying radiation emitted by radium. In 1903, Ernest Rutherford named this radiation gamma rays based on their relatively strong penetration of matter; in 1900 he had already named two less penetrating types of decay radiation (discovered by Henri Becquerel) alpha rays and beta rays in ascending order of penetrating power.

Gamma rays from radioactive decay are in the energy range from a few kiloelectronvolts (keV) to approximately 8 megaelectronvolts (~8 MeV), corresponding to the typical energy levels in nuclei with reasonably long lifetimes. The energy spectrum of gamma rays can be used to identify the decaying radionuclides using gamma spectroscopy. Very-high-energy gamma rays in the 100–1000 teraelectronvolt (TeV) range have been observed from sources such as the Cygnus X-3 microquasar.

Natural sources of gamma rays originating on Earth are mostly as a result of radioactive decay and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. However, there are other rare natural sources, such as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, which produce gamma rays from electron action upon the nucleus. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include fission, such as that which occurs in nuclear reactors, and high energy physics experiments, such as neutral pion decay and nuclear fusion.

Gamma rays and X-rays are both electromagnetic radiation, and since they overlap in the electromagnetic spectrum, the terminology varies between scientific disciplines. In some fields of physics, they are distinguished by their origin: Gamma rays are created by nuclear decay, while in the case of X-rays, the origin is outside the nucleus. In astrophysics, gamma rays are conventionally defined as having photon energies above 100 keV and are the subject of gamma ray astronomy, while radiation below 100 keV is classified as X-rays and is the subject of X-ray astronomy. This convention stems from the early man-made X-rays, which had energies only up to 100 keV, whereas many gamma rays could go to higher energies. A large fraction of astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere.

Gamma rays are ionizing radiation and are thus biologically hazardous. Due to their high penetration power, they can damage bone marrow and internal organs. Unlike alpha and beta rays, they pass easily through the body and thus pose a formidable A gamma ray, or gamma radiation (symbol γ or ${\displaystyle \gamma }$), is a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic waves and so imparts the highest photon energy. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900 while studying radiation emitted by radium. In 1903, Ernest Rutherford named this radiation gamma rays based on their relatively strong penetration of matter; in 1900 he had already named two less penetrating types of decay radiation (discovered by Henri Becquerel) alpha rays and beta rays in ascending order of penetrating power.

Gamma rays from radioactive decay are in the energy range from a few kiloelectronvolts (keV) to approximately 8 megaelectronvolts (~8 MeV), corresponding to the typical energy levels in nuclei with reasonably long lifetimes. The energy spectrum of gamma rays can be used to identify the decaying radionuclides using gamma spectroscopy. Very-high-energy gamma rays in the 100–1000 teraelectronvolt (TeV) range have been observed from sources such as the Cygnus X-3 microquasar.

Natural sources of gamma rays originating on Earth are mostly as a result of radioactive decay and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. However, there are other rare natural sources, such as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, which produce gamma rays from electron action upon the nucleus. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include fission, such as that which occurs in nuclear reactors, and high energy physics experiments, such as neutral pion decay and nuclear fusion.

Gamma rays and X-rays are both electromagnetic radiation, and since they overlap in the electromagnetic spectrum, the terminology varies between scientific disciplines. In some fields of physics, they are distinguished by their origin: Gamma rays are created by nuclear decay, while in the case of X-rays, the origin is outside the nucleus. In astrophysics, gamma rays are conventionally defined as having photon energies above 100 keV and are the subject of gamma ray astronomy, while radiation below 100 keV is classified as X-rays and is the subject of X-ray astronomy. This convention stems from the early man-made X-rays, which had energies only up to 100 keV, whereas many gamma rays could go to higher energies. A large fraction of astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere.

Gamma rays are ionizing radiation and are thus biologically hazardous. Due to their high penetration power, they can damage bone marrow and internal organs. Unlike alpha and beta rays, they pass easily through the body and thus pose a formidable radiation protection challenge, requiring shielding made from dense materials such as lead or concrete.

Gamma rays cannot be reflected off a mirror and their wavelengths are so small that they will pass between atoms in a detector. This means that gamma ray detectors often contain densely packed diamonds.