gamma radiation, high-energy photons emitted as one of the three types of radiation resulting from natural radioactivity. It is the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation, with a very short wavelength (high frequency). Wavelengths of the longest gamma radiation are less than 10 - 10 m, with frequencies greater than 1018 hertz (cycles per sec). Gamma rays are essentially very energetic X rays; the distinction between the two is not based on their intrinsic nature but rather on their origins. X rays are emitted during atomic processes involving energetic electrons. Gamma radiation is emitted by excited nuclei (see nucleus) or other processes involving subatomic particles; it often accompanies alpha or beta radiation, as a nucleus emitting those particles may be left in an excited (higher-energy) state. The applications of gamma radiation are much the same as those of X rays, both in medicine and in industry. In medicine, gamma ray sources are used for cancer treatment and for diagnostic purposes. Some gamma-emitting radioisotopes are also used as tracers (see radioactive isotope). In industry, principal applications include inspection of castings and welds. Data from artificial satellites and high-altitude balloons have indicated that a flux of gamma radiation is reaching the earth from outer space, thus opening up the field of research known as gamma-ray astronomy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.