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Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays, and denoted by the Greek letter γ, refers to electromagnetic radiation of extremely high frequency and therefore high energy per photon. Gamma rays are ionizing radiation, and are thus biologically hazardous. They are classically produced by the decay from high energy states of atomic nuclei (gamma decay), but are also created by other processes. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900, while studying radiation emitted from radium. Villard's radiation was named "gamma rays" by Ernest Rutherford in 1903.
Natural sources of gamma rays on Earth include gamma decay from naturally occurring radioisotopes, and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. Rare terrestrial natural sources produce gamma rays that are not of a nuclear origin, such as lightning strikes and terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. Additionally, gamma rays are also produced by a number of astronomical processes in which very high-energy electrons are produced, that in turn cause secondary gamma rays via bremsstrahlung, inverse Compton scattering and synchrotron radiation. However, a large fraction of such astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere and can only be detected by spacecraft.
Gamma rays typically have frequencies above 10 exahertz (or >1019 Hz), and therefore have energies above 100 keV and wavelengths less than 10 picometers (less than the diameter of an atom). However, this is not a hard and fast definition, but rather only a rule-of-thumb description for natural processes. Gamma rays from radioactive decay are defined as gamma rays no matter what their energy, so that there is no lower limit to gamma energy derived from radioactive decay. Gamma decay commonly produces energies of a few hundred keV, and almost always less than 10 MeV. In astronomy, gamma rays are defined by their energy, and no production process need be specified. The energies of gamma rays from astronomical sources range over 10 TeV, at a level far too large to result from radioactive decay. A notable example is extremely powerful bursts of high-energy radiation normally referred to as long duration gamma-ray bursts, which produce gamma rays by a mechanism not compatible with radioactive decay. These bursts of gamma rays, thought to be due to the collapse of stars called Hypernovae, are the most powerful events so far discovered in the cosmos.
The first gamma ray source to be discovered historically was the 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, however, can produce inhibited gamma decay with a measurable and much longer half-life). Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900, while studying radiation emitted from 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 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. Villard's radiation was recognized as being of a type fundamentally different from previously-named rays, by Ernest Rutherford, who in 1903 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 easily 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 they might be extremely fast beta particles, but their failure to be deflected by a magnetic field indicated they had no charge. In 1914, gamma rays were observed to be reflected from crystal surfaces, proving they were electromagnetic radiation. Rutherford and his coworker Edward Andrade measured the wavelengths of gamma rays from radium, and found that they were similar to X-rays but with shorter wavelengths and (thus) higher frequency. This was eventually recognized as giving them also more energy per photon, as soon as the latter term became generally accepted. A gamma decay was then understood to usually emit a single gamma photon.
Natural sources of gamma rays on Earth include gamma decay from naturally occurring radioisotopes such as potassium-40, and also as a secondary radiation from various atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. Some rare terrestrial natural sources that produce gamma rays that are not of a nuclear origin, are lightning strikes and terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, 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, inverse Compton scattering and synchrotron radiation. A large fraction of such astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere and must be detected by spacecraft. Notable artificial sources of gamma rays include fission such as occurs in nuclear reactors, and high energy physics experiments, such as neutral pion decay and nuclear fusion.
|Nucleus · Nucleons (p, n) · Nuclear force · Nuclear reaction|
The distinction between X-rays and gamma rays has changed in recent decades. Originally, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by X-ray tubes almost invariably had a longer wavelength than the radiation (gamma rays) emitted by radioactive 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. However, with artificial sources 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 other high energy processes known to involve other than radioactive decay are still classed as sources of gamma radiation.
In the past, the distinction between X-rays and gamma rays was based on energy, with gamma rays being considered a higher-energy version of electromagnetic radiation. However, 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. One of the most common gamma ray emitting isotopes used in diagnostic nuclear medicine, technetium-99m, 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.
Because of 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-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 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 which produce them may be uncertain and photon energy, not origin, determines the required astronomical detectors needed. High energy photons occur in nature which 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 has led to the realization that many gamma rays produced in astronomical processes result not from radioactive decay or particle annihilation, but rather in much the same manner as the production of X-rays. Although gamma rays in astronomy are discussed below as non-radioactive events, in fact a few gamma rays are known in astronomy to originate explicitly from gamma decay of nuclei (as demonstrated by their spectra and emission half life). A classic example is that of supernova SN 1987A, which emits an "afterglow" of gamma-ray photons from the decay of newly-made radioactive nickel-56 and cobalt-56. Most gamma rays in astronomy, however, arise by other mechanisms. Astronomical literature tends to write "gamma-ray" with a hyphen, by analogy to X-rays, rather than in a way analogous to alpha rays and beta rays. This notation tends to subtly stress the non-nuclear source of most astronomical "gamma-rays."
The measure of gamma rays' ionizing ability is called the exposure:
Shielding from gamma rays requires large amounts of mass, in contrast to alpha particles which can be blocked by paper or skin, and beta particles which can be shielded by foil. Gamma rays are better absorbed by materials with high atomic numbers and high density, although neither effect is important compared to the total mass per area in the path of the gamma ray. For this reason, a lead shield is only modestly better (20–30% better) as a gamma shield, than an equal mass of another 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 or HVL). For example gamma rays that require 1 cm (0.4″) of lead to reduce their intensity by 50% will also have their intensity reduced in half by 4.1 cm of granite rock, 6 cm (2½″) of concrete, or 9 cm (3½″) of packed soil. 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 is used for shielding in portable gamma ray sources, but here the savings in weight over lead are larger, as portable sources' shape resembles a sphere to some extent, and the volume of a sphere is dependent on the cube of the radius; so a source with its radius cut in half will have its volume reduced eight times, which will more than compensate uranium's greater density (as well as reducing bulk). 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.
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:
where x is the distance from the incident surface, μ = nσ 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 in cm2.
The secondary electrons (and/or positrons) produced in any of these three processes frequently have enough energy to produce much ionization themselves.
Additionally, gamma rays, particularly high energy ones, can interact with atomic nuclei resulting in ejection of particles in photodisintegration, or in some cases, even nuclear fission (photofission).
High-energy (from 80 to 500 GeV) 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 spectrums.
Gamma rays can be produced by a wide range of phenomena, both nuclear and non-nuclear.
Gamma rays from radioactive gamma decay are produced alongside other forms of radiation such as alpha or beta, and are produced after the other types of decay occur. The mechanism is that when a nucleus emits an α or β particle, the daughter nucleus is usually left in an excited state. It can then move to a lower energy state by emitting a gamma ray photon, in the same way that an atomic electron can jump to a lower energy state by emitting a light ray photon. Emission of a gamma ray from an excited nuclear state typically requires only 10−12 seconds, and is thus nearly instantaneous. Gamma decay from excited states may also follow nuclear reactions such as neutron capture, nuclear fission, or nuclear fusion.
In certain cases, the excited nuclear state following the emission of a beta particle may be more stable than average, and is termed a metastable excited state, if its decay is (at least) 100 to 1000 times longer than the average 10−12 seconds. Such nuclei have half-lives that are more easily measurable, and are termed nuclear isomers. Some rare nuclear isomers are able to stay in their excited state for minutes, hours, days, or occasionally far longer, before emitting a gamma ray. Isomeric transition is the name given to a gamma decay from such a state. 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 characterized by high nuclear spin, requiring a change in spin of several units or more with gamma decay, instead of a single unit transition that results in gamma decay in only 10−12 seconds.
An emitted gamma ray from any type of excited state may transfer its energy directly to one of the most tightly bound electrons causing it to be ejected from the atom, a process termed the photoelectric effect (it should not be confused with the internal conversion process, in which no real gamma ray photon is produced as an intermediate particle).
Gamma rays, X-rays, visible light, and radio waves are all forms of electromagnetic radiation. The only difference is the frequency and hence the energy of those photons. Gamma rays are generally the most energetic of these, although broad overlap with X-ray energies occurs. An example of gamma ray production follows:
First 60Co decays to excited 60Ni by beta decay by emission of an electron of 0.31 MeV. Then the excited 60Ni drops down to the ground state (see nuclear shell model) by emitting two gamma rays in succession (1.17 MeV then 1.33 MeV). This path is followed 99.88% of the time:
Another example is the alpha decay of 241Am to form 237Np; this alpha decay is accompanied by gamma emission. In some cases, the gamma emission spectrum for a nucleus (daughter nucleus) is quite simple, (e.g. 60Co/60Ni) while in other cases, such as with (241Am/237Np and 192Ir/192Pt), the gamma emission spectrum is complex, revealing that a series of nuclear energy levels can exist. The fact that an alpha spectrum can have a series of different peaks with different energies reinforces the idea that several nuclear energy levels are possible.
Because a beta decay is accompanied by the emission of a neutrino which also carries energy away, the beta spectrum does not have sharp lines, but instead has a broad peak. Hence from beta decay alone it is not possible to probe the different energy levels found in the nucleus.
In optical spectroscopy, it is well known that an entity which emits light can also absorb light at the same wavelength (photon energy). For instance, a sodium flame can emit yellow light as well as absorb the yellow light from another sodium-vapor lamp. In the case of gamma rays, this can be seen in Mössbauer spectroscopy. Here, a correction for the Doppler shift due to recoil of the nucleus usually is not required, since the emitting and absorbing atoms are locked into a crystal, which absorbs their momentum (see Mössbauer effect). In this way, the exact conditions for gamma ray absorption through resonance can be attained.
This is similar to the Franck Condon effects seen in optical spectroscopy.
A few gamma rays in astronomy are known to arise from gamma decay (see discussion of SN1987A) but most do not.
Gamma radiation, like X-radiation, can be produced by a variety of phenomena. When high-energy gamma rays, electrons, or protons bombard materials, the excited atoms within emit characteristic "secondary" gamma rays, which are products of the temporary creation of excited nuclear states in the bombarded atoms (such transitions form a topic in nuclear spectroscopy). Such gamma rays are produced by the nucleus, but not as a result of nuclear excitement from radioactive decay.
Energy in the gamma radiation range, often explicitly called gamma-radiation when it comes from astrophysical sources, is also produced by sub-atomic particle and particle-photon interactions. These include electron-positron annihilation, neutral pion decay, bremsstrahlung, inverse Compton scattering, and synchrotron radiation.
High energy gamma rays in astronomy include the gamma ray background produced when cosmic rays (either high speed electrons or protons) interact with ordinary matter, producing pair-production gamma rays at 511 keV. Alternatively bremsstrahlung at energies of tens of MeV or more are produced when cosmic ray electrons interact with nuclei of sufficiently high atomic number (see gamma ray image of the Moon at the beginning of this article, for illustration).
The so-called long-duration gamma-ray bursts produce events in which energies of ~ 1044 joules (as much energy as our Sun will produce in its entire life-time) but over a period of only 20 to 40 seconds, accompanied by high-efficiency conversion to gamma rays (on the order of 50% total energy conversion). The leading hypotheses for the mechanism of production of these highest-known intensity beams of radiation, are inverse Compton scattering and synchrotron radiation production of gamma rays from high-energy charged particles. These processes occur as relativistic charged particles leaving the region near the event horizon of the newly formed black hole during the supernova explosion, and focused for a few tens of seconds into a relativistic beam by the magnetic field of the exploding hypernova. 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 with high gamma ray power even at distances of up to 10 billion light years—close to the edge of the visible universe.
All ionizing radiation causes similar damage at a cellular level, but because rays of alpha particles and beta particles are relatively non-penetrating, external exposure to them causes only localized damage, e.g. radiation burns to the skin. Gamma rays and neutrons are more penetrating, causing diffuse damage throughout the body (e.g. radiation sickness, cell's DNA damage, cell death due to damaged DNA, increasing incidence of cancer) rather than burns. External radiation exposure should also be distinguished from internal exposure, due to ingested or inhaled radioactive substances, which, depending on the substance's chemical nature, can produce both diffuse and localized internal damage.
The retina too is damaged by exposure to gamma irradiation, showing decreased DNA and RNA contents, with some increase in alkaline phosphatase activity 
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 provide our only view of the universe in gamma rays.
Non-contact industrial sensors used in the Refining, Mining, Chemical, Food, Soaps and Detergents, and Pulp and Paper industries, in applications measuring levels, density, and thicknesses commonly use sources of gamma radiation. 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 (CSI). These US$5 million machines are advertised to scan 30 containers per hour. The objective of this technique is to screen merchant ship containers before they enter US ports.
Gamma radiation is often used to kill living organisms, in a process called irradiation. Applications of this include sterilizing medical equipment (as an alternative to autoclaves or chemical means), removing decay-causing bacteria from many foods or preventing fruit and vegetables from sprouting to maintain freshness and flavor.
Despite their cancer-causing properties, gamma rays are also used to treat some types of cancer, since the rays kill cancer cells also. In the procedure called gamma-knife surgery, multiple concentrated beams of gamma rays are directed on 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 in imaging techniques. A number of different gamma-emitting radioisotopes are used. For example, in a PET scan a radiolabeled sugar called fludeoxyglucose emits positrons that are converted to pairs of gamma rays that localize cancer (which often takes up more sugar than other surrounding tissues). The most common gamma emitter used in medical applications is the nuclear isomer technetium-99m 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 can be used to form an image of the radioisotope's distribution by detecting the gamma radiation emitted (see also SPECT). Depending on what 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 in a bone scan).
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.
The natural outdoor exposure in Great Britain 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 (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/CT scan can deliver 14 to 32 mSv depending on the protocol. The dose from fluoroscopy of the stomach is much higher, approximately 50 mSv (14 times the annual yearly 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, 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). (Doses much larger than this may, however, be delivered to selected parts of the body in the course of radiation therapy.)
For low dose exposure, for example among nuclear workers, who receive an average yearly radiation dose of 19 mSv,[clarification needed] the risk of dying from cancer (excluding leukemia) 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.[broken citation]