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A gamma ray, also known as gamma radiation (symbol γ or \gamma), is a penetrating form of
electromagnetic radiation In physics, electromagnetic radiation (EMR) consists of waves of the electromagnetic field, electromagnetic (EM) field, which propagate through space and carry momentum and electromagnetic radiant energy. It includes radio waves, microwaves, inf ...

electromagnetic radiation
arising from the
radioactive decay Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive Decay chain, disintegration, or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. A material containing unstable nucl ...

radioactive decay
of
atomic nuclei The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger–Marsden experiments, Geiger–Marsden gold foil experiment. After th ...
. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic waves, typically shorter than those of
X-ray An X-ray, or, much less commonly, X-radiation, is a penetrating form of high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 10 Picometre, picometers to 10 Nanometre, nanometers, corresponding to frequency, ...

X-ray
s. With
frequencies Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also occasionally referred to as ''temporal frequency'' for clarity, and is distinct from ''angular frequency''. Frequency is measured in Hertz (unit), hertz (H ...

frequencies
above 30 exahertz (), it imparts the highest
photon energy Photon energy is the energy carried by a single photon. The amount of energy is directly proportional to the photon's electromagnetic wave, electromagnetic frequency and thus, equivalently, is inversely proportional to the wavelength. The higher th ...
. Paul Villard, a French
chemist A chemist (from Greek ''chēm(ía)'' alchemy; replacing ''chymist'' from Medieval Latin ''alchemist'') is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties. Chemists carefully describe th ...

chemist
and
physicist A physicist is a scientist who specializes in the field of physics, which encompasses the interactions of matter and energy at all length and time scales in the physical universe. Physicists generally are interested in the root or ultimate caus ...

physicist
, discovered gamma radiation in 1900 while studying
radiation In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes: * ''electromagnetic radiation'', such as radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visib ...

radiation
emitted by
radium Radium is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Ra and atomic number 88. It is the sixth element in alkaline earth metal, group 2 of the periodic table, also known as the alkaline earth metals. Pure radium is silvery-white, but ...

radium
. In 1903,
Ernest Rutherford Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a New Zealand physicist who came to be known as the father of nuclear physics. ''Encyclopædia Britannica'' considers him to be the greatest ...
named this radiation ''gamma rays'' based on their relatively strong penetration of
matter In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. All everyday objects that can be touched are ultimately composed of atoms, which are made up of interacting subatomic partic ...
; in 1900 he had already named two less penetrating types of decay radiation (discovered by
Henri Becquerel Antoine Henri Becquerel (; 15 December 1852 – 25 August 1908) was a French engineer, physicist, Nobel laureate, and the first person to discover evidence of radioactivity. For work in this field he, along with Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pier ...

Henri Becquerel
)
alpha rays Alpha particles, also called alpha rays or alpha radiation, consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium-4 atomic nucleus, nucleus. They are generally produced in the process of alpha decay, but may ...

alpha rays
and
beta rays A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation (symbol β), is a high-energy, high-speed electron The electron ( or ) is a subatomic particle with a negative one elementary charge, elementary electric charge. Electrons belong to th ...
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 (
MeV In physics, an electronvolt (symbol eV, also written electron-volt and electron volt) is the measure of an amount of kinetic energy gained by a single electron accelerating from rest through an Voltage, electric potential difference of one volt i ...
), 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 A radionuclide (radioactive nuclide, radioisotope or radioactive isotope) is a nuclide that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable. This excess energy can be used in one of three ways: emitted from the nucleus as gamma radiation; transferr ...
using gamma spectroscopy.
Very-high-energy gamma ray Very-high-energy gamma ray (VHEGR) denotes Gamma ray, gamma radiation with photon energy, photon energies of 100 GeV (gigaelectronvolt) to 100 TeV (teraelectronvolt), i.e., 1011 to 1014 electronvolts. This is approximately equal to wavelengths be ...
s in the 100–1000 teraelectronvolt ( TeV) range have been observed from sources such as the
Cygnus X-3 Cygnus X-3 is a high-mass X-ray binary (high-mass X-ray binary, HMXB), one of the stronger X-ray binary, binary X-ray sources in the sky. It is often considered to be a Microquasar#Microquasar, microquasar, and it is believed to be a com ...

Cygnus X-3
microquasar A microquasar, the smaller version of a quasar, is a compact region surrounding a stellar black hole with a mass several times that of its Binary star#Cataclysmic variables and X-ray binaries, companion star. The matter being pulled from the compan ...
. Natural sources of gamma rays originating on Earth are mostly a result of radioactive decay and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with
cosmic ray Cosmic rays are high-energy particles or clusters of particles (primarily represented by protons or atomic nuclei) that move through space at nearly the speed of light. They originate from the Sun, from outside of the Solar System in our own ...
particles. However, there are other rare natural sources, such as
terrestrial gamma-ray flash A terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), also known as dark lightning, is a burst of gamma rays produced in Earth's atmosphere. TGFs have been recorded to last 0.2 to 3.5 milliseconds, and have energy, energies of up to 20 million electronvolts. It ...
es, which produce gamma rays from electron action upon the nucleus. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include
fission
fission
, such as that which occurs in
nuclear reactor A nuclear reactor is a device used to initiate and control a fission nuclear chain reaction or nuclear fusion reactions. Nuclear reactors are used at nuclear power plants for electricity generation and in nuclear marine propulsion. Heat from nu ...

nuclear reactor
s, and
high energy physics Particle physics or high energy physics is the study of Elementary particle, fundamental particles and fundamental interaction, forces that constitute matter and radiation. The fundamental particles in the universe are classified in the Standa ...
experiments, such as
neutral pion decay
neutral pion decay
and
nuclear fusion Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles ( neutrons or protons). The difference in mass between the reactants and products is mani ...

nuclear fusion
. Gamma rays and
X-ray An X-ray, or, much less commonly, X-radiation, is a penetrating form of high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 10 Picometre, picometers to 10 Nanometre, nanometers, corresponding to frequency, ...

X-ray
s are both electromagnetic radiation, and since they overlap in the
electromagnetic spectrum The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of frequencies Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also occasionally referred to as ''temporal frequency'' for clarity, and is distinct from ''angular ...

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 X-rays originate outside the nucleus. In
astrophysics Astrophysics is a science that employs the methods and principles of physics and chemistry Chemistry is the scientific study of the properties and behavior of matter. It is a natural science that covers the elements that make up matt ...
, gamma rays are conventionally defined as having
photon A photon () is an elementary particle that is a quantum of the electromagnetic field, including electromagnetic radiation such as light and radio waves, and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. Photons are Massless particle, massless ...

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. Gamma rays are
ionizing radiation Ionizing radiation (or ionising radiation), including nuclear radiation, consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that have sufficient energy to ionization, ionize atoms or molecules by detaching electrons from them. Some particles ...
and are thus hazardous to life. Due to their high penetration power, they can damage bone marrow and internal organs. Unlike alpha and beta rays, they easily pass through the body and thus pose a formidable
radiation protection Radiation protection, also known as radiological protection, is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as "The protection of people from harmful effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, and the means for achieving this". Exposur ...
challenge, requiring shielding made from dense materials such as lead or concrete. On
Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbor life. While large list of largest lakes and seas in the Solar System, volumes of water can be found throughout the Solar System, only water distributi ...

Earth
, the
magnetosphere In astronomy and planetary science, a magnetosphere is a region of space surrounding an astronomical object in which charged particles are affected by that object's magnetic field. It is created by a celestial body with an active interior Dynamo ...
protects life from most types of lethal cosmic radiation other than gamma rays, which are absorbed by 0.53 bars of atmosphere as they penetrate the atmosphere. Gamma rays cannot be reflected by a mirror and their wavelengths are so small that they will pass between the atoms in a detector.


History of discovery

The first gamma ray source to be discovered was the
radioactive decay Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive Decay chain, disintegration, or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. A material containing unstable nucl ...

radioactive decay
process called ''gamma decay''. In this type of decay, an excited nucleus emits a gamma ray almost immediately upon formation.It is now understood that a nuclear
isomeric transition A nuclear isomer is a metastable state of an atomic nucleus The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger–Marsde ...
, however, can produce inhibited gamma decay with a measurable and much longer half-life.
Paul Villard
Paul Villard
, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900, while studying radiation emitted from
radium Radium is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Ra and atomic number 88. It is the sixth element in alkaline earth metal, group 2 of the periodic table, also known as the alkaline earth metals. Pure radium is silvery-white, but ...

radium
. Villard knew that his described radiation was more powerful than previously described types of rays from radium, which included beta rays, first noted as "radioactivity" by
Henri Becquerel Antoine Henri Becquerel (; 15 December 1852 – 25 August 1908) was a French engineer, physicist, Nobel laureate, and the first person to discover evidence of radioactivity. For work in this field he, along with Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pier ...

Henri Becquerel
in 1896, and alpha rays, discovered as a less penetrating form of radiation by Rutherford, in 1899. However, Villard did not consider naming them as a different fundamental type. Later, in 1903, Villard's radiation was recognized as being of a type fundamentally different from previously named rays by
Ernest Rutherford Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, (30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937) was a New Zealand physicist who came to be known as the father of nuclear physics. ''Encyclopædia Britannica'' considers him to be the greatest ...
, who named Villard's rays "gamma rays" by analogy with the beta and alpha rays that Rutherford had differentiated in 1899. The "rays" emitted by radioactive elements were named in order of their power to penetrate various materials, using the first three letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha rays as the least penetrating, followed by beta rays, followed by gamma rays as the most penetrating. Rutherford also noted that gamma rays were not deflected (or at least, not deflected) by a magnetic field, another property making them unlike alpha and beta rays. Gamma rays were first thought to be particles with mass, like alpha and beta rays. Rutherford initially believed that they might be extremely fast beta particles, but their failure to be deflected by a magnetic field indicated that they had no charge. In 1914, gamma rays were observed to be reflected from crystal surfaces, proving that they were electromagnetic radiation. Rutherford and his co-worker Edward Andrade measured the wavelengths of gamma rays from radium, and found they were similar to
X-ray An X-ray, or, much less commonly, X-radiation, is a penetrating form of high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 10 Picometre, picometers to 10 Nanometre, nanometers, corresponding to frequency, ...

X-ray
s, but with shorter wavelengths and thus, higher frequency. This was eventually recognized as giving them more energy per
photon A photon () is an elementary particle that is a quantum of the electromagnetic field, including electromagnetic radiation such as light and radio waves, and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. Photons are Massless particle, massless ...

photon
, as soon as the latter term became generally accepted. A gamma decay was then understood to usually emit a gamma photon.


Sources

Natural sources of gamma rays on Earth include gamma decay from naturally occurring
radioisotope A radionuclide (radioactive nuclide, radioisotope or radioactive isotope) is a nuclide that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable. This excess energy can be used in one of three ways: emitted from the nucleus as gamma radiation; transferr ...
s such as
potassium-40 Potassium-40 (40K) is a radioactive isotope of potassium which has a long half-life of 1.25 billion years. It makes up about 0.012% (120 parts-per notation, ppm) of the total amount of potassium found in nature. Potassium-40 undergoes three type ...

potassium-40
, and also as a secondary radiation from various atmospheric interactions with
cosmic ray Cosmic rays are high-energy particles or clusters of particles (primarily represented by protons or atomic nuclei) that move through space at nearly the speed of light. They originate from the Sun, from outside of the Solar System in our own ...
particles. Some rare terrestrial natural sources that produce gamma rays that are not of a nuclear origin, are
lightning strike A lightning strike or lightning bolt is an electric discharge between the atmosphere and the ground. Most originate in a cumulonimbus cloud and terminate on the ground, called cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning. A less common type of strike, ground- ...

lightning strike
s and
terrestrial gamma-ray flash A terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), also known as dark lightning, is a burst of gamma rays produced in Earth's atmosphere. TGFs have been recorded to last 0.2 to 3.5 milliseconds, and have energy, energies of up to 20 million electronvolts. It ...
es, which produce high energy emissions from natural high-energy voltages. Gamma rays are produced by a number of astronomical processes in which very high-energy electrons are produced. Such electrons produce secondary gamma rays by the mechanisms of ''
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
'', inverse
Compton scattering Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Compton, Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a high frequency photon after an interaction with a electric charge, charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy (increa ...

Compton scattering
and
synchrotron radiation Synchrotron radiation (also known as magnetobremsstrahlung radiation) is the electromagnetic radiation emitted when Theory of relativity, relativistic charged particles are subject to an acceleration perpendicular to their velocity (). It is prod ...
. A large fraction of such astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include , such as occurs in
nuclear reactor A nuclear reactor is a device used to initiate and control a fission nuclear chain reaction or nuclear fusion reactions. Nuclear reactors are used at nuclear power plants for electricity generation and in nuclear marine propulsion. Heat from nu ...

nuclear reactor
s, as well as
high energy physics Particle physics or high energy physics is the study of Elementary particle, fundamental particles and fundamental interaction, forces that constitute matter and radiation. The fundamental particles in the universe are classified in the Standa ...
experiments, such as and
nuclear fusion Nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles ( neutrons or protons). The difference in mass between the reactants and products is mani ...

nuclear fusion
. A sample of gamma ray-emitting material that is used for irradiating or imaging is known as a gamma source. It is also called a
radioactive source A radioactive source is a known quantity of a radionuclide which emits ionizing radiation; typically one or more of the radiation types gamma rays, alpha particles, beta particles, and neutron radiation. Sources can be used for irradiation, where ...
, isotope source, or radiation source, though these more general terms also apply to alpha and beta-emitting devices. Gamma sources are usually sealed to prevent
radioactive contamination Radioactive contamination, also called radiological pollution, is the deposition of, or presence of Radioactive decay, radioactive substances on surfaces or within solids, liquids, or gases (including the human body), where their presence is unin ...
, and transported in heavy shielding.


Radioactive decay (gamma decay)

Gamma rays are produced during gamma decay, which normally occurs after other forms of decay occur, such as
alpha Alpha (uppercase , lowercase ; grc, ἄλφα, ', or ell, άλφα, álfa) is the first Letter (alphabet), letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals, it has a value of one. Alpha is derived from the Phoenician alphabet, P ...

alpha
or
beta Beta (, ; uppercase , lowercase , or cursive Greek, cursive ; grc, βῆτα, bē̂ta or ell, βήτα, víta) is the second letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals, it has a value of 2. In Modern Greek, it represents th ...

beta
decay. A radioactive nucleus can decay by the emission of an

or particle. The daughter nucleus that results is usually left in an excited state. It can then decay to a lower energy state by emitting a gamma ray photon, in a process called gamma decay. The emission of a gamma ray from an excited nucleus typically requires only 10−12 seconds. Gamma decay may also follow
nuclear reaction In nuclear physics Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies atomic nuclei and their constituents and interactions, in addition to the study of other forms of nuclear matter. Nuclear physics should not be confused with atomic phy ...
s such as
neutron capture Neutron capture is a nuclear reaction in which an atomic nucleus The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger ...
,
nuclear fission Nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction, reaction in which the atomic nucleus, nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller atomic nucleus, nuclei. The fission process often produces gamma ray, gamma photons, and releases a very large ...
, or nuclear fusion. Gamma decay is also a mode of relaxation of many excited states of atomic nuclei following other types of radioactive decay, such as beta decay, so long as these states possess the necessary component of nuclear spin. When high-energy gamma rays, electrons, or protons bombard materials, the excited atoms emit characteristic "secondary" gamma rays, which are products of the creation of excited nuclear states in the bombarded atoms. Such transitions, a form of nuclear gamma
fluorescence Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. It is a form of luminescence. In most cases, the emitted light has a longer wavelength, and therefore a lower photon energy ...
, form a topic in
nuclear physics Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies atomic nuclei and their constituents and interactions, in addition to the study of other forms of nuclear matter. Nuclear physics should not be confused with atomic physics, which studies the ...
called gamma spectroscopy. Formation of fluorescent gamma rays are a rapid subtype of radioactive gamma decay. In certain cases, the excited nuclear state that follows the emission of a beta particle or other type of excitation, may be more stable than average, and is termed a
metastable In chemistry and physics, metastability denotes an intermediate Energy level, energetic state within a dynamical system other than the system's ground state, state of least energy. A ball resting in a hollow on a slope is a simple example of me ...
excited state, if its decay takes (at least) 100 to 1000 times longer than the average 10−12 seconds. Such relatively long-lived excited nuclei are termed
nuclear isomer A nuclear isomer is a metastable state of an atomic nucleus, in which one or more nucleons (protons or neutrons) occupy excited state, higher energy levels than in the ground state of the same nucleus. "Metastable" describes nuclei whose excited ...
s, and their decays are termed
isomeric transition A nuclear isomer is a metastable state of an atomic nucleus The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger–Marsde ...
s. Such nuclei have
half-life Half-life (symbol ) is the time required for a quantity (of substance) to reduce to half of its initial value. The term is commonly used in nuclear physics to describe how quickly unstable atoms undergo radioactive decay or how long stable ato ...
s that are more easily measurable, and rare nuclear isomers are able to stay in their excited state for minutes, hours, days, or occasionally far longer, before emitting a gamma ray. The process of isomeric transition is therefore similar to any gamma emission, but differs in that it involves the intermediate metastable excited state(s) of the nuclei. Metastable states are often characterized by high
nuclear spin In atomic physics, the spin quantum number is a quantum number (designated ) which describes the intrinsic angular momentum (or spin angular momentum, or simply spin (physics), spin) of an electron or other Elementary particle, particle. The phra ...
, requiring a change in spin of several units or more with gamma decay, instead of a single unit transition that occurs in only 10−12 seconds. The rate of gamma decay is also slowed when the energy of excitation of the nucleus is small. An emitted gamma ray from any type of excited state may transfer its energy directly to any
electron The electron ( or ) is a subatomic particle with a negative one elementary charge, elementary electric charge. Electrons belong to the first generation (particle physics), generation of the lepton particle family, and are generally thought t ...
s, but most probably to one of the K shell electrons of the atom, causing it to be ejected from that atom, in a process generally termed the
photoelectric effect The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons when electromagnetic radiation, such as light, hits a material. Electrons emitted in this manner are called photoelectrons. The phenomenon is studied in condensed matter physics, and Solid-stat ...
(external gamma rays and ultraviolet rays may also cause this effect). The photoelectric effect should not be confused with the
internal conversion Internal conversion is a non-radioactive, atomic decay process where an excited nucleus Nucleus (plural, : nuclei) is a Latin word for the seed inside a fruit. It most often refers to: *Atomic nucleus, the very dense central region of an atom * ...
process, in which a gamma ray photon is not produced as an intermediate particle (rather, a "virtual gamma ray" may be thought to mediate the process).


Decay schemes

One example of gamma ray production due to radionuclide decay is the decay scheme for cobalt-60, as illustrated in the accompanying diagram. First, decays to excited by
beta decay In nuclear physics, beta decay (β-decay) is a type of radioactive decay in which a beta particle (fast energetic electron or positron) is emitted from an atomic nucleus, transforming the original nuclide to an isobar (nuclide), isobar of that ...
emission of an electron of . Then the excited decays to the ground state (see
nuclear shell model In nuclear physics, atomic physics, and nuclear chemistry, the nuclear shell model is a nuclear model, model of the atomic nucleus which uses the Pauli exclusion principle to describe the structure of the nucleus in terms of energy levels. The ...
) by emitting gamma rays in succession of 1.17 MeV followed by . This path is followed 99.88% of the time: : Another example is the alpha decay of to form ; which is followed by gamma emission. In some cases, the gamma emission spectrum of the daughter nucleus is quite simple, (e.g. /) while in other cases, such as with (/ and /), the gamma emission spectrum is complex, revealing that a series of nuclear energy levels exist.


Particle physics

Gamma rays are produced in many processes of
particle physics Particle physics or high energy physics is the study of Elementary particle, fundamental particles and fundamental interaction, forces that constitute matter and radiation. The fundamental particles in the universe are classified in the Standa ...
. Typically, gamma rays are the products of neutral systems which decay through
electromagnetic interaction In physics, electromagnetism is an interaction that occurs between particles with electric charge. It is the second-strongest of the four fundamental interactions, after the strong force, and it is the dominant force in the interactions ...
s (rather than a weak or strong interaction). For example, in an
electron–positron annihilation Electron–positron annihilation occurs when an electron () and a positron (, the electron's antiparticle) collide. At low energies, the result of the collision is the annihilation of the electron and positron, and the creation of energetic photo ...
, the usual products are two gamma ray photons. If the annihilating electron and
positron The positron or antielectron is the antiparticle or the antimatter counterpart of the electron. It has an electric charge of +1 ''elementary charge, e'', a spin (physics), spin of 1/2 (the same as the electron), and the same Electron rest ...
are at rest, each of the resulting gamma rays has an energy of ~ 511 keV and frequency of ~ . Similarly, a neutral
pion In particle physics, a pion (or a pi meson, denoted with the Greek alphabet, Greek letter pi (letter), pi: ) is any of three subatomic particles: , , and . Each pion consists of a quark and an antiquark and is therefore a meson. Pions are the li ...
most often decays into two photons. Many other
hadron In particle physics, a hadron (; grc, ἁδρός, hadrós; "stout, thick") is a composite particle, composite subatomic particle made of two or more quarks bound state, held together by the strong interaction. They are analogous to molecules tha ...
s and massive
boson In particle physics, a boson ( ) is a subatomic particle whose spin quantum number has an integer value (0,1,2 ...). Bosons form one of the two fundamental classes of subatomic particle, the other being fermions, which have odd half-integer ...
s also decay electromagnetically. High energy physics experiments, such as the
Large Hadron Collider The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and highest-energy Collider, particle collider. It was built by the CERN, European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1998 and 2008 in collaboration with over 10,000 scient ...
, accordingly employ substantial radiation shielding. Because
subatomic particle In physical sciences, a subatomic particle is a particle that composes an atom Every atom is composed of a atomic nucleus, nucleus and one or more electrons bound to the nucleus. The nucleus is made of one or more protons and a number of n ...
s mostly have far shorter wavelengths than atomic nuclei, particle physics gamma rays are generally several orders of magnitude more energetic than nuclear decay gamma rays. Since gamma rays are at the top of the electromagnetic spectrum in terms of energy, all extremely high-energy photons are gamma rays; for example, a photon having the Planck energy would be a gamma ray.


Other sources

A few gamma rays in astronomy are known to arise from gamma decay (see discussion of SN1987A), but most do not. Photons from astrophysical sources that carry energy in the gamma radiation range are often explicitly called gamma-radiation. In addition to nuclear emissions, they are often produced by sub-atomic particle and particle-photon interactions. Those include electron-positron annihilation, neutral pion decay,
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
, inverse
Compton scattering Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Compton, Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a high frequency photon after an interaction with a electric charge, charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy (increa ...

Compton scattering
, and
synchrotron radiation Synchrotron radiation (also known as magnetobremsstrahlung radiation) is the electromagnetic radiation emitted when Theory of relativity, relativistic charged particles are subject to an acceleration perpendicular to their velocity (). It is prod ...
.


Laboratory sources

In October 2017, scientists from various European universities proposed a means for sources of GeV photons using lasers as exciters through a controlled interplay between the cascade and anomalous radiative trapping.


Terrestrial thunderstorms

Thunderstorm A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustics, acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms ...
s can produce a brief pulse of gamma radiation called a
terrestrial gamma-ray flash A terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), also known as dark lightning, is a burst of gamma rays produced in Earth's atmosphere. TGFs have been recorded to last 0.2 to 3.5 milliseconds, and have energy, energies of up to 20 million electronvolts. It ...
. These gamma rays are thought to be produced by high intensity static electric fields accelerating electrons, which then produce gamma rays by
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
as they collide with and are slowed by atoms in the atmosphere. Gamma rays up to 100 MeV can be emitted by terrestrial thunderstorms, and were discovered by space-borne observatories. This raises the possibility of health risks to passengers and crew on aircraft flying in or near thunderclouds.


Solar flares

The most effusive
solar flare A solar flare is an intense localized eruption of electromagnetic radiation in the Sun's Stellar atmosphere, atmosphere. Flares occur in active regions and are often, but not always, accompanied by coronal mass ejections, solar particle events, ...
s emit across the entire EM spectrum, including γ-rays. The first confident observation occurred in
1972 Within the context of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) it was the longest year ever, as two leap seconds were added during this 366-day year, an event which has not since been repeated. (If its start and end are defined using Solar time, me ...
.


Cosmic rays

Extraterrestrial, high energy gamma rays include the gamma ray background produced when cosmic rays (either high speed electrons or protons) collide with ordinary matter, producing pair-production gamma rays at 511 keV. Alternatively,
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
are produced at energies of tens of MeV or more when cosmic ray electrons interact with nuclei of sufficiently high atomic number (see gamma ray image of the Moon near the end of this article, for illustration).


Pulsars and magnetars

The gamma ray sky (see illustration at right) is dominated by the more common and longer-term production of gamma rays that emanate from
pulsar A pulsar (from ''pulsating radio source'') is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its Poles of astronomical bodies#Magnetic poles, magnetic poles. This radiation can be observed only w ...
s within the Milky Way. Sources from the rest of the sky are mostly
quasar A quasar is an extremely Luminosity, luminous active galactic nucleus (AGN). It is pronounced , and sometimes known as a quasi-stellar object, abbreviated QSO. This emission from a galaxy nucleus is powered by a supermassive black hole with a m ...
s. Pulsars are thought to be neutron stars with magnetic fields that produce focused beams of radiation, and are far less energetic, more common, and much nearer sources (typically seen only in our own galaxy) than are quasars or the rarer
gamma-ray burst In gamma-ray astronomy, gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are immensely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant Galaxy, galaxies. They are the most energetic and luminous Electromagnetic pulse, electromagnetic events since the Big Bang. Bu ...
sources of gamma rays. Pulsars have relatively long-lived magnetic fields that produce focused beams of relativistic speed charged particles, which emit gamma rays (bremsstrahlung) when those strike gas or dust in their nearby medium, and are decelerated. This is a similar mechanism to the production of high-energy photons in megavoltage
radiation therapy Radiation therapy or radiotherapy, often abbreviated RT, RTx, or XRT, is a therapy using ionizing radiation, generally provided as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells and normally delivered by a linear accelerator. Ra ...
machines (see
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
).
Inverse Compton scattering Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Compton, Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a high frequency photon after an interaction with a electric charge, charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy (increa ...
, in which charged particles (usually electrons) impart energy to low-energy photons boosting them to higher energy photons. Such impacts of photons on relativistic charged particle beams is another possible mechanism of gamma ray production. Neutron stars with a very high magnetic field (
magnetar A magnetar is a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field (∼109 to 1011 Tesla (unit), T, ∼1013 to 1015 Gauss (unit), G). The magnetic-field decay powers the emission of high-photon energy, energy electromagnetic radiatio ...
s), thought to produce astronomical
soft gamma repeater A soft gamma repeater (SGR) is an astronomy, astronomical object which emits large bursts of gamma-rays and X-rays at irregular intervals. It is conjectured that they are a type of magnetar or, alternatively, neutron stars with fossil Accretion di ...
s, are another relatively long-lived star-powered source of gamma radiation.


Quasars and active galaxies

More powerful gamma rays from very distant
quasar A quasar is an extremely Luminosity, luminous active galactic nucleus (AGN). It is pronounced , and sometimes known as a quasi-stellar object, abbreviated QSO. This emission from a galaxy nucleus is powered by a supermassive black hole with a m ...
s and closer active galaxies are thought to have a gamma ray production source similar to a
particle accelerator A particle accelerator is a machine that uses electromagnetic fields to propel electric charge, charged particles to very high speeds and energies, and to contain them in well-defined particle beam, beams. Large accelerators are used for fun ...
. High energy electrons produced by the quasar, and subjected to inverse Compton scattering,
synchrotron radiation Synchrotron radiation (also known as magnetobremsstrahlung radiation) is the electromagnetic radiation emitted when Theory of relativity, relativistic charged particles are subject to an acceleration perpendicular to their velocity (). It is prod ...
, or bremsstrahlung, are the likely source of the gamma rays from those objects. It is thought that a
supermassive black hole A supermassive black hole (SMBH or sometimes SBH) is the largest type of black hole, with its mass being on the order of hundreds of thousands, or millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun (). Black holes are a class of astronomical obj ...
at the center of such galaxies provides the power source that intermittently destroys stars and focuses the resulting charged particles into beams that emerge from their rotational poles. When those beams interact with gas, dust, and lower energy photons they produce X-rays and gamma rays. These sources are known to fluctuate with durations of a few weeks, suggesting their relatively small size (less than a few light-weeks across). Such sources of gamma and X-rays are the most commonly visible high intensity sources outside our galaxy. They shine not in bursts (see illustration), but relatively continuously when viewed with gamma ray telescopes. The power of a typical quasar is about 1040 watts, a small fraction of which is gamma radiation. Much of the rest is emitted as electromagnetic waves of all frequencies, including radio waves.


Gamma-ray bursts

The most intense sources of gamma rays, are also the most intense sources of any type of electromagnetic radiation presently known. They are the "long duration burst" sources of gamma rays in astronomy ("long" in this context, meaning a few tens of seconds), and they are rare compared with the sources discussed above. By contrast, "short"
gamma-ray burst In gamma-ray astronomy, gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are immensely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant Galaxy, galaxies. They are the most energetic and luminous Electromagnetic pulse, electromagnetic events since the Big Bang. Bu ...
s of two seconds or less, which are not associated with supernovae, are thought to produce gamma rays during the collision of pairs of neutron stars, or a neutron star and a
black hole A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravitation, gravity is so strong that nothing, including light or other Electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetic waves, has enough energy to escape it. The theory of general relativity predicts t ...
. The so-called ''long-duration'' gamma-ray bursts produce a total energy output of about 1044 joules (as much energy as our
Sun The Sun is the star A star is an astronomical object comprising a luminous spheroid of plasma (physics), plasma held together by its gravity. The List of nearest stars and brown dwarfs, nearest star to Earth is the Sun. Many other st ...
will produce in its entire life-time) but in a period of only 20 to 40 seconds. Gamma rays are approximately 50% of the total energy output. The leading hypotheses for the mechanism of production of these highest-known intensity beams of radiation, are inverse
Compton scattering Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Compton, Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a high frequency photon after an interaction with a electric charge, charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy (increa ...

Compton scattering
and
synchrotron radiation Synchrotron radiation (also known as magnetobremsstrahlung radiation) is the electromagnetic radiation emitted when Theory of relativity, relativistic charged particles are subject to an acceleration perpendicular to their velocity (). It is prod ...
from high-energy charged particles. These processes occur as relativistic charged particles leave the region of the event horizon of a newly formed
black hole A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravitation, gravity is so strong that nothing, including light or other Electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetic waves, has enough energy to escape it. The theory of general relativity predicts t ...
created during supernova explosion. The beam of particles moving at relativistic speeds are focused for a few tens of seconds by the magnetic field of the exploding
hypernova A hypernova (sometimes called a collapsar) is a very energetic supernova thought to result from an extreme core-collapse scenario. In this case, a massive star (>30 solar masses) collapses to form a rotating black hole emitting twin energetic je ...
. The fusion explosion of the hypernova drives the energetics of the process. If the narrowly directed beam happens to be pointed toward the Earth, it shines at gamma ray frequencies with such intensity, that it can be detected even at distances of up to 10 billion light years, which is close to the edge of the
visible universe The observable universe is a ball-shaped region of the universe The universe is all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxy, galaxies, and all other forms of matter and energy. The Big Bang theory is the p ...
.


Properties


Penetration of matter

Due to their penetrating nature, gamma rays require large amounts of shielding mass to reduce them to levels which are not harmful to living cells, in contrast to
alpha particle Alpha particles, also called alpha rays or alpha radiation, consist of two protons and two neutron The neutron is a subatomic particle, symbol or , which has a neutral (not positive or negative) charge, and a mass slightly greater than tha ...
s, which can be stopped by paper or skin, and
beta particle A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation (symbol β), is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron emitted by the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus during the process of beta decay. There are two forms of beta decay, β ...
s, which can be shielded by thin aluminium. Gamma rays are best absorbed by materials with high
atomic number The atomic number or nuclear charge number (symbol ''Z'') of a chemical element is the charge number of an atomic nucleus. For ordinary nuclei, this is equal to the proton number (''n''p) or the number of protons found in the nucleus of every ...
s (''Z'') and high density, which contribute to the total stopping power. Because of this, a lead (high ''Z'') shield is 20–30% better as a gamma shield than an equal mass of another low-''Z'' shielding material, such as aluminium, concrete, water, or soil; lead's major advantage is not in lower weight, but rather its compactness due to its higher density. Protective clothing, goggles and respirators can protect from internal contact with or ingestion of alpha or beta emitting particles, but provide no protection from gamma radiation from external sources. The higher the energy of the gamma rays, the thicker the shielding made from the same shielding material is required. Materials for shielding gamma rays are typically measured by the thickness required to reduce the intensity of the gamma rays by one half (the
half value layer A material's half-value layer (HVL), or half-value thickness, is the thickness of the material at which the intensity of radiation In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through sp ...
or HVL). For example, gamma rays that require 1 cm (0.4 inch) of
lead Lead is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Pb (from the Latin ) and atomic number 82. It is a heavy metals, heavy metal that is density, denser than most common materials. Lead is Mohs scale of mineral hardness#Intermediate ...
to reduce their intensity by 50% will also have their intensity reduced in half by of
granite Granite () is a coarse-grained (phanerite, phaneritic) intrusive rock, intrusive igneous rock composed mostly of quartz, alkali feldspar, and plagioclase. It forms from magma with a high content of silica and alkali metal oxides that slowly cool ...
rock, 6 cm (2.5 inches) of
concrete Concrete is a composite material composed of fine and coarse construction aggregate, aggregate bonded together with a fluid cement (cement paste) that hardens (cures) over time. Concrete is the second-most-used substance in the world after wa ...
, or 9 cm (3.5 inches) of packed
soil Soil, also commonly referred to as earth or dirt, is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organism In biology, an organism () is any life, living system that functions as an individual entity. All organi ...
. However, the mass of this much concrete or soil is only 20–30% greater than that of lead with the same absorption capability.
Depleted uranium Depleted uranium (DU; also referred to in the past as Q-metal, depletalloy or D-38) is uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope than natural uranium.: "Depleted uranium possesses only 60% of the radioactivity of natural uranium, hav ...
is used for shielding in portable gamma ray sources, but here the savings in weight over lead are larger, In a nuclear power plant, shielding can be provided by steel and concrete in the pressure and particle containment vessel, while water provides a radiation shielding of fuel rods during storage or transport into the reactor core. The loss of water or removal of a "hot" fuel assembly into the air would result in much higher radiation levels than when kept under water.


Matter interaction

When a gamma ray passes through matter, the probability for absorption is proportional to the thickness of the layer, the density of the material, and the absorption cross section of the material. The total absorption shows an exponential decrease of intensity with distance from the incident surface: :I(x)= I_0 \cdot e ^ where x is the thickness of the material from the incident surface, μ= ''n''σ is the absorption coefficient, measured in cm−1, ''n'' the number of atoms per cm3 of the material (atomic density) and σ the absorption
cross section Cross section may refer to: * Cross section (geometry) **Multiview orthographic projection#Section, Cross-sectional views in architecture & engineering 3D *Cross section (geology) * Cross section (electronics) * Radar cross section, measure of det ...
in cm2. As it passes through matter, gamma radiation ionizes via three processes: *The
photoelectric effect The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons when electromagnetic radiation, such as light, hits a material. Electrons emitted in this manner are called photoelectrons. The phenomenon is studied in condensed matter physics, and Solid-stat ...
: This describes the case in which a gamma photon interacts with and transfers its energy to an atomic electron, causing the ejection of that electron from the atom. The kinetic energy of the resulting
photoelectron The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons when electromagnetic radiation, such as light, hits a material. Electrons emitted in this manner are called photoelectrons. The phenomenon is studied in condensed matter physics, and Solid-stat ...
is equal to the energy of the incident gamma photon minus the energy that originally bound the electron to the atom (binding energy). The photoelectric effect is the dominant energy transfer mechanism for X-ray and gamma ray photons with energies below 50 keV (thousand electronvolts), but it is much less important at higher energies. *
Compton scattering Compton scattering, discovered by Arthur Compton, Arthur Holly Compton, is the scattering of a high frequency photon after an interaction with a electric charge, charged particle, usually an electron. If it results in a decrease in energy (increa ...

Compton scattering
: This is an interaction in which an incident gamma photon loses enough energy to an atomic electron to cause its ejection, with the remainder of the original photon's energy emitted as a new, lower energy gamma photon whose emission direction is different from that of the incident gamma photon, hence the term "scattering". The probability of Compton scattering decreases with increasing photon energy. It is thought to be the principal absorption mechanism for gamma rays in the intermediate energy range 100 keV to 10 MeV. It is relatively independent of the
atomic number The atomic number or nuclear charge number (symbol ''Z'') of a chemical element is the charge number of an atomic nucleus. For ordinary nuclei, this is equal to the proton number (''n''p) or the number of protons found in the nucleus of every ...
of the absorbing material, which is why very dense materials like lead are only modestly better shields, on a ''per weight'' basis, than are less dense materials. *
Pair production Pair production is the creation of a subatomic particle and its antiparticle from a electric charge, neutral boson. Examples include creating an electron and a positron, a muon and an antimuon, or a proton and an antiproton. Pair production ofte ...
: This becomes possible with gamma energies exceeding 1.02 MeV, and becomes important as an absorption mechanism at energies over 5 MeV (see illustration at right, for lead). By interaction with the
electric field An electric field (sometimes E-field) is the field (physics), physical field that surrounds electrically charged particles and exerts force on all other charged particles in the field, either attracting or repelling them. It also refers to the ...
of a nucleus, the energy of the incident photon is converted into the mass of an electron-positron pair. Any gamma energy in excess of the equivalent rest mass of the two particles (totaling at least 1.02 MeV) appears as the kinetic energy of the pair and in the recoil of the emitting nucleus. At the end of the positron's
range Range may refer to: Geography * Range (geographic), a chain of hills or mountains; a somewhat linear, complex mountainous or hilly area (cordillera, sierra) ** Mountain range, a group of mountains bordered by lowlands * Range, a term used to i ...
, it combines with a free electron, and the two annihilate, and the entire mass of these two is then converted into two gamma photons of at least 0.51 MeV energy each (or higher according to the kinetic energy of the annihilated particles). The secondary electrons (and/or positrons) produced in any of these three processes frequently have enough energy to produce much
ionization Ionization, or Ionisation is the process by which an atom Every atom is composed of a atomic nucleus, nucleus and one or more electrons bound to the nucleus. The nucleus is made of one or more protons and a number of neutrons. Only the mos ...
themselves. Additionally, gamma rays, particularly high energy ones, can interact with atomic nuclei resulting in ejection of particles in
photodisintegration Photodisintegration (also called phototransmutation, or a photonuclear reaction) is a nuclear process in which an atomic nucleus absorbs a high-energy gamma ray, enters an excited state, and immediately decays by emitting a subatomic particle. The ...
, or in some cases, even nuclear fission (
photofission Photofission is a process in which a nucleus Nucleus (plural, : nuclei) is a Latin word for the seed inside a fruit. It most often refers to: *Atomic nucleus, the very dense central region of an atom *Cell nucleus, a central organelle of a eu ...
).


Light interaction

High-energy (from 80 GeV to ~10 TeV) gamma rays arriving from far-distant quasars are used to estimate the extragalactic background light in the universe: The highest-energy rays interact more readily with the background light photons and thus the density of the background light may be estimated by analyzing the incoming gamma ray spectra.


Gamma spectroscopy

Gamma spectroscopy is the study of the energetic transitions in atomic nuclei, which are generally associated with the absorption or emission of gamma rays. As in optical
spectroscopy Spectroscopy is the field of study that measures and interprets the electromagnetic spectrum, electromagnetic spectra that result from the interaction between Electromagnetism, electromagnetic radiation and matter as a function of the wavelengt ...
(see Franck–Condon effect) the absorption of gamma rays by a nucleus is especially likely (i.e., peaks in a "resonance") when the energy of the gamma ray is the same as that of an energy transition in the nucleus. In the case of gamma rays, such a resonance is seen in the technique of
Mössbauer spectroscopy Mössbauer spectroscopy is a spectroscopic Spectroscopy is the field of study that measures and interprets the electromagnetic spectrum, electromagnetic spectra that result from the interaction between Electromagnetism, electromagnetic radia ...
. In the Mössbauer effect the narrow resonance absorption for nuclear gamma absorption can be successfully attained by physically immobilizing atomic nuclei in a crystal. The immobilization of nuclei at both ends of a gamma resonance interaction is required so that no gamma energy is lost to the kinetic energy of recoiling nuclei at either the emitting or absorbing end of a gamma transition. Such loss of energy causes gamma ray resonance absorption to fail. However, when emitted gamma rays carry essentially all of the energy of the atomic nuclear de-excitation that produces them, this energy is also sufficient to excite the same energy state in a second immobilized nucleus of the same type.


Applications

Gamma rays provide information about some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe; however, they are largely absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere. Instruments aboard high-altitude balloons and satellites missions, such as the
Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST, also FGRST), formerly called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), is a space observatory being used to perform gamma-ray astronomy observations from low Earth orbit. Its main instrument is ...
, provide our only view of the universe in gamma rays. Gamma-induced molecular changes can also be used to alter the properties of semi-precious stones, and is often used to change white
topaz Topaz is a silicate mineral of aluminium and fluorine with the chemical formula aluminium, Alsilicon, Sioxygen, O(fluorine, F,hydroxide, OH). It is used as a gemstone in jewelry and other adornments. Common topaz in its natural state is colorle ...
into blue topaz. Non-contact industrial sensors commonly use sources of gamma radiation in refining, mining, chemicals, food, soaps and detergents, and pulp and paper industries, for the measurement of levels, density, and thicknesses. Gamma-ray sensors are also used for measuring the fluid levels in water and oil industries. Typically, these use Co-60 or Cs-137 isotopes as the radiation source. In the US, gamma ray detectors are beginning to be used as part of the
Container Security Initiative The Container Security Initiative (CSI) a.k.a. the 24-Hour Rule was launched in 2002 by the U.S. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, D ...
(CSI). These machines are advertised to be able to scan 30 containers per hour. Gamma radiation is often used to kill living organisms, in a process called
irradiation Irradiation is the process by which an object is exposed to radiation. The exposure can originate from various sources, including natural sources. Most frequently the term refers to ionizing radiation, and to a level of radiation that will serve ...
. Applications of this include the sterilization of medical equipment (as an alternative to
autoclave An autoclave is a machine used to carry out industrial and scientific processes requiring elevated temperature and pressure in relation to ambient pressure and/or Room temperature, temperature. Autoclaves are used before surgical procedures to p ...
s or chemical means), the removal of decay-causing
bacteria Bacteria (; singular: bacterium) are ubiquitous, mostly free-living organisms often consisting of one biological cell. They constitute a large domain of prokaryotic microorganisms. Typically a few micrometre The micrometre (Amer ...
from many foods and the prevention of the sprouting of fruit and vegetables to maintain freshness and flavor. Despite their cancer-causing properties, gamma rays are also used to treat some types of
cancer Cancer is a group of diseases involving Cell growth#Disorders, abnormal cell growth with the potential to Invasion (cancer), invade or Metastasis, spread to other parts of the body. These contrast with benign tumors, which do not spread. Poss ...
, since the rays also kill cancer cells. In the procedure called gamma-knife surgery, multiple concentrated beams of gamma rays are directed to the growth in order to kill the cancerous cells. The beams are aimed from different angles to concentrate the radiation on the growth while minimizing damage to surrounding tissues. Gamma rays are also used for diagnostic purposes in
nuclear medicine Nuclear medicine or nucleology is a medical specialty involving the application of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease A disease is a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or ...
in imaging techniques. A number of different gamma-emitting radioisotopes are used. For example, in a
PET scan Positron emission tomography (PET) is a functional imaging technique that uses radioactive substances known as radiotracers to visualize and measure changes in Metabolism, metabolic processes, and in other physiological activities including bl ...
a radiolabeled sugar called
fluorodeoxyglucose 8Fluorodeoxyglucose (International Nonproprietary Name, INN), or fluorodeoxyglucose F 18 (United States Adopted Name, USAN and United States Pharmacopeia, USP), also commonly called fluorodeoxyglucose and abbreviated 8FDG, 2- 8FDG or F ...
emits
positron The positron or antielectron is the antiparticle or the antimatter counterpart of the electron. It has an electric charge of +1 ''elementary charge, e'', a spin (physics), spin of 1/2 (the same as the electron), and the same Electron rest ...
s that are annihilated by electrons, producing pairs of gamma rays that highlight cancer as the cancer often has a higher metabolic rate than the surrounding tissues. The most common gamma emitter used in medical applications is the
nuclear isomer A nuclear isomer is a metastable state of an atomic nucleus, in which one or more nucleons (protons or neutrons) occupy excited state, higher energy levels than in the ground state of the same nucleus. "Metastable" describes nuclei whose excited ...
technetium-99m Technetium-99m (99mTc) is a metastable nuclear isomer of technetium-99 (itself an isotope of technetium), symbolized as 99mTc, that is used in tens of millions of medical diagnostic procedures annually, making it the most commonly used Radiopharma ...
which emits gamma rays in the same energy range as diagnostic X-rays. When this radionuclide tracer is administered to a patient, a
gamma camera A gamma camera (γ-camera), also called a scintillation camera or Anger camera, is a device used to image gamma radiation emitting radioisotopes, a technique known as scintigraphy. The applications of scintigraphy include early drug development ...
can be used to form an image of the radioisotope's distribution by detecting the gamma radiation emitted (see also
SPECT Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT, or less commonly, SPET) is a nuclear medicine tomography, tomographic imaging technique using gamma rays. It is very similar to conventional nuclear medicine planar imaging using a gamma camera ...
). Depending on which molecule has been labeled with the tracer, such techniques can be employed to diagnose a wide range of conditions (for example, the spread of cancer to the bones via
bone scan A bone scan or bone scintigraphy is a nuclear medicine imaging technique of the bone. It can help diagnose a number of bone conditions, including cancer of the bone or metastasis, location of bone inflammation and bone fractures, fractures (that ...
).


Health effects

Gamma rays cause damage at a cellular level and are penetrating, causing diffuse damage throughout the body. However, they are less ionising than alpha or beta particles, which are less penetrating. Low levels of gamma rays cause a
stochastic Stochastic (, ) refers to the property of being well described by a random probability distribution. Although stochasticity and randomness are distinct in that the former refers to a modeling approach and the latter refers to phenomena themsel ...
health risk, which for radiation dose assessment is defined as the ''probability'' of cancer induction and genetic damage. High doses produce
deterministic Determinism is a Philosophy, philosophical view, where all events are determined completely by previously existing causes. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have developed from diverse and sometimes overlapping motive ...
effects, which is the ''severity'' of acute tissue damage that is certain to happen. These effects are compared to the physical quantity
absorbed dose Absorbed dose is a dose quantity which is the measure of the energy deposited in matter by ionizing radiation per unit mass. Absorbed dose is used in the calculation of dose uptake in living tissue in both radiation protection (reduction of harmf ...
measured by the unit
gray Grey (more common in British English) or gray (more common in American English) is an intermediate color between black and white. It is a neutral or achromatic color, meaning literally that it is "without color", because it can be compose ...
(Gy).


Body response

When gamma radiation breaks DNA molecules, a cell may be able to repair the damaged genetic material, within limits. However, a study of Rothkamm and Lobrich has shown that this repair process works well after high-dose exposure but is much slower in the case of a low-dose exposure.


Risk assessment

The natural outdoor exposure in the United Kingdom ranges from 0.1 to 0.5 µSv/h with significant increase around known nuclear and contaminated sites. Natural exposure to gamma rays is about 1 to 2 mSv per year, and the average total amount of radiation received in one year per inhabitant in the USA is 3.6 mSv. There is a small increase in the dose, due to naturally occurring gamma radiation, around small particles of high atomic number materials in the human body caused by the photoelectric effect. By comparison, the radiation dose from chest
radiography Radiography is an imaging technology, imaging technique using X-rays, gamma rays, or similar ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation to view the internal form of an object. Applications of radiography include medical radiography ("diagnos ...
(about 0.06 mSv) is a fraction of the annual naturally occurring background radiation dose. A chest CT delivers 5 to 8 mSv. A whole-body
PET A pet, or companion animal, is an animal Animals are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms in the biological kingdom Animalia. With few exceptions, animals consume organic material, breathe oxygen, are able to move, can reproduce s ...
/CT scan can deliver 14 to 32 mSv depending on the protocol. The dose from
fluoroscopy Fluoroscopy () is an imaging technique that uses X-rays to obtain real-time moving images of the interior of an object. In its primary application of medical imaging, a fluoroscope () allows a physician to see the internal anatomy, structure and ...
of the stomach is much higher, approximately 50 mSv (14 times the annual background). An acute full-body equivalent single exposure dose of 1 Sv (1000 mSv) causes slight blood changes, but 2.0–3.5 Sv (2.0–3.5 Gy) causes very severe syndrome of nausea, hair loss, and
hemorrhaging Bleeding, hemorrhage, haemorrhage or blood loss, is blood escaping from the circulatory system from damaged blood vessels. Bleeding can occur Internal bleeding, internally, or externally either through a natural opening such as the Mouth (human) ...
, and will cause death in a sizable number of cases—-about 10% to 35% without medical treatment. A dose of 5 Sv (5 Gy) is considered approximately the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of exposed population) for an acute exposure to radiation even with standard medical treatment. A dose higher than 5 Sv (5 Gy) brings an increasing chance of death above 50%. Above 7.5–10 Sv (7.5–10 Gy) to the entire body, even extraordinary treatment, such as bone-marrow transplants, will not prevent the death of the individual exposed (see
radiation poisoning Acute radiation syndrome (ARS), also known as radiation sickness or radiation poisoning, is a collection of health effects that are caused by being exposed to high absorbed dose, amounts of ionizing radiation in a short period of time. Symptoms ...
). (Doses much larger than this may, however, be delivered to selected parts of the body in the course of
radiation therapy Radiation therapy or radiotherapy, often abbreviated RT, RTx, or XRT, is a therapy using ionizing radiation, generally provided as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells and normally delivered by a linear accelerator. Ra ...
.) For low-dose exposure, for example among nuclear workers, who receive an average yearly radiation dose of 19 mSv, the risk of dying from cancer (excluding
leukemia Leukemia (American and British English spelling differences#ae and oe, also spelled leukaemia and pronounced ) is a group of blood cancers that usually begin in the bone marrow and result in high numbers of abnormal blood cells. These blood ce ...
) increases by 2 percent. For a dose of 100 mSv, the risk increase is 10 percent. By comparison, risk of dying from cancer was increased by 32 percent for the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Units of measurement and exposure

The following table shows radiation quantities in SI and non-SI units: The measure of the ionizing effect of gamma and X-rays in dry air is called the exposure, for which a legacy unit, the röntgen was used from 1928. This has been replaced by
kerma Kerma was the capital city of the Kerma culture, which was located in present-day Sudan at least 5,500 years ago. Kerma is one of the largest archaeological sites in ancient Nubia. It has produced decades of extensive excavations and research, in ...
, now mainly used for instrument calibration purposes but not for received dose effect. The effect of gamma and other ionizing radiation on living tissue is more closely related to the amount of
energy In physics, energy (from Ancient Greek: wikt:ἐνέργεια#Ancient_Greek, ἐνέργεια, ''enérgeia'', “activity”) is the physical quantity, quantitative physical property, property that is #Energy transfer, transferred to a phy ...
deposited in tissue rather than the ionisation of air, and replacement radiometric units and quantities for
radiation protection Radiation protection, also known as radiological protection, is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as "The protection of people from harmful effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, and the means for achieving this". Exposur ...
have been defined and developed from 1953 onwards. These are: *The
gray Grey (more common in British English) or gray (more common in American English) is an intermediate color between black and white. It is a neutral or achromatic color, meaning literally that it is "without color", because it can be compose ...
(Gy), is the SI unit of
absorbed dose Absorbed dose is a dose quantity which is the measure of the energy deposited in matter by ionizing radiation per unit mass. Absorbed dose is used in the calculation of dose uptake in living tissue in both radiation protection (reduction of harmf ...
, which is the amount of radiation energy deposited in the irradiated material. For gamma radiation this is numerically equivalent to
equivalent dose Equivalent dose is a Dose (radiation), dose quantity '' H '' representing the stochastic health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body which represents the probability of radiation-induced cancer and genetic damage. It is de ...
measured by the
sievert The sievert (symbol: SvNot be confused with the sverdrup or the svedberg, two non-SI units that sometimes use the same symbol.) is a unit in the International System of Units (SI) intended to represent the stochastic health risk of ionizing radi ...
, which indicates the stochastic biological effect of low levels of radiation on human tissue. The radiation weighting conversion factor from absorbed dose to equivalent dose is 1 for gamma, whereas alpha particles have a factor of 20, reflecting their greater ionising effect on tissue. *The rad is the deprecated CGS unit for absorbed dose and the rem is the deprecated CGS unit of equivalent dose, used mainly in the USA.


Distinction from X-rays

The conventional distinction between X-rays and gamma rays has changed over time. Originally, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by
X-ray tube An X-ray tube is a vacuum tube that converts electrical input power into X-rays. The availability of this controllable source of X-rays created the field of radiography, the imaging of partly opaque objects with penetrating radiation. In contrast ...
s almost invariably had a longer
wavelength In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase (waves), phase on the wave, such as two adjac ...
than the radiation (gamma rays) emitted by
radioactive Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive Decay chain, disintegration, or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by radiation. A material containing unstable nucl ...
nuclei. Older literature distinguished between X- and gamma radiation on the basis of wavelength, with radiation shorter than some arbitrary wavelength, such as 10−11 m, defined as gamma rays. Since the energy of photons is proportional to their frequency and inversely proportional to wavelength, this past distinction between X-rays and gamma rays can also be thought of in terms of its energy, with gamma rays considered to be higher energy electromagnetic radiation than are X-rays. However, since current artificial sources are now able to duplicate any electromagnetic radiation that originates in the nucleus, as well as far higher energies, the wavelengths characteristic of radioactive gamma ray sources vs. other types now completely overlap. Thus, gamma rays are now usually distinguished by their origin: X-rays are emitted by definition by electrons outside the nucleus, while gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus. Exceptions to this convention occur in astronomy, where gamma decay is seen in the afterglow of certain supernovas, but radiation from high energy processes known to involve other radiation sources than radioactive decay is still classed as gamma radiation. For example, modern high-energy X-rays produced by linear accelerators for megavoltage treatment in cancer often have higher energy (4 to 25 MeV) than do most classical gamma rays produced by nuclear
gamma decay A gamma ray, also known as gamma radiation (symbol γ or \gamma), is a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nucleus, atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic wav ...
. One of the most common gamma ray emitting isotopes used in diagnostic
nuclear medicine Nuclear medicine or nucleology is a medical specialty involving the application of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease A disease is a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or ...
,
technetium-99m Technetium-99m (99mTc) is a metastable nuclear isomer of technetium-99 (itself an isotope of technetium), symbolized as 99mTc, that is used in tens of millions of medical diagnostic procedures annually, making it the most commonly used Radiopharma ...
, produces gamma radiation of the same energy (140 keV) as that produced by diagnostic X-ray machines, but of significantly lower energy than therapeutic photons from linear particle accelerators. In the medical community today, the convention that radiation produced by nuclear decay is the only type referred to as "gamma" radiation is still respected. Due to this broad overlap in energy ranges, in physics the two types of electromagnetic radiation are now often defined by their origin: X-rays are emitted by electrons (either in orbitals outside of the nucleus, or while being accelerated to produce
bremsstrahlung ''Bremsstrahlung'' (), from "to brake" and "radiation"; i.e., "braking radiation" or "deceleration radiation", is electromagnetic radiation produced by the deceleration of a charged particle when deflected by another charged particle, typicall ...

bremsstrahlung
-type radiation), while gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus or by means of other particle decays or annihilation events. There is no lower limit to the energy of photons produced by nuclear reactions, and thus
ultraviolet Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelength from 10 nanometer, nm (with a corresponding frequency around 30 Hertz, PHz) to 400 nm (750 Hertz, THz), shorter than that of visible light, but longer than ...
or lower energy photons produced by these processes would also be defined as "gamma rays". The only naming-convention that is still universally respected is the rule that electromagnetic radiation that is known to be of atomic nuclear origin is ''always'' referred to as "gamma rays", and never as X-rays. However, in physics and astronomy, the converse convention (that all gamma rays are considered to be of nuclear origin) is frequently violated. In astronomy, higher energy gamma and X-rays are defined by energy, since the processes that produce them may be uncertain and photon energy, not origin, determines the required astronomical detectors needed. High-energy photons occur in nature that are known to be produced by processes other than nuclear decay but are still referred to as gamma radiation. An example is "gamma rays" from lightning discharges at 10 to 20 MeV, and known to be produced by the bremsstrahlung mechanism. Another example is gamma-ray bursts, now known to be produced from processes too powerful to involve simple collections of atoms undergoing radioactive decay. This is part and parcel of the general realization that many gamma rays produced in astronomical processes result not from radioactive decay or particle annihilation, but rather in non-radioactive processes similar to X-rays. Although the gamma rays of astronomy often come from non-radioactive events, a few gamma rays in astronomy are specifically known to originate from gamma decay of nuclei (as demonstrated by their spectra and emission half life). A classic example is that of supernova
SN 1987A SN 1987A was a type II supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. It occurred approximately from Earth and was the closest observed supernova since Kepler's Supernova. 1987A's light reached Earth on Febr ...
, which emits an "afterglow" of gamma-ray photons from the decay of newly made radioactive
nickel-56 Naturally occurring nickel Nickel is a chemical element with Chemical symbol, symbol Ni and atomic number 28. It is a silvery-white lustrous metal with a slight golden tinge. Nickel is a hard and Ductility, ductile transition metal. Pure ni ...
and cobalt-56. Most gamma rays in astronomy, however, arise by other mechanisms.


See also

*
Annihilation In particle physics, annihilation is the process that occurs when a subatomic particle collides with its respective antiparticle to produce other particles, such as an electron colliding with a positron to produce two photons. The total energy a ...
* Galactic Center GeV excess *
Gaseous ionization detectors Gaseous ionization detectors are radiation detection instruments used in particle physics Particle physics or high energy physics is the study of Elementary particle, fundamental particles and fundamental interaction, forces that constitute ...
*
Very-high-energy gamma ray Very-high-energy gamma ray (VHEGR) denotes Gamma ray, gamma radiation with photon energy, photon energies of 100 GeV (gigaelectronvolt) to 100 TeV (teraelectronvolt), i.e., 1011 to 1014 electronvolts. This is approximately equal to wavelengths be ...
* Ultra-high-energy gamma ray


Notes


References


External links


Basic reference on several types of radiation

Radiation Q & ARadiation information

The Lund/LBNL Nuclear Data Search
– Contains information on gamma-ray energies from isotopes.
The LIVEChart of Nuclides – IAEA
with filter on gamma-ray energy
Health Physics Society Public Education Website
{{Authority control Electromagnetic spectrum IARC Group 1 carcinogens Nuclear physics Radiation Radioactivity Articles containing video clips