radiation (rāˌdēāˈshən) [key], term applied to the emission and transmission of energy through space or through a material medium and also to the radiated energy itself. In its widest sense the term includes electromagnetic, acoustic, and particle radiation, and all forms of ionizing radiation. Commonly radiation refers to the electromagnetic spectrum, which, in order of decreasing wavelength, includes radio, microwave, infrared, visible-light, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray emissions. All of these travel through space at the speed of light (c.300,000 km/186,000 mi per sec) but differ in wavelength and frequency. According to the quantum theory, the energy carried in the form of electromagnetic radiation may be viewed as made up of tiny bundles or packets, each bundle being known as a photon. The sun is the source of much radiant energy in the form of sunlight and heat. Heat radiation is infrared radiation. All types of electromagnetic radiation can be reflected and absorbed in the same manner as is visible light. Acoustic radiation, propagated as sound waves, may be sonic (in the frequency range from 16 to 20,000 cycles per sec), infrasonic, or subsonic (frequency less than 16 cycles per sec), and ultrasonic (frequency greater than 20,000 cycles per sec). Examples of particle radiation are alpha and beta rays in radioactivity, and many kinds of atomic and subatomic particles such as electrons, mesons, neutrons, protons, and heavier nuclei (see cosmic rays). Radiation is usually considered to travel from a source in straight lines, but its path may be affected by external factors; for instance, charged particles travel in curved paths in magnetic fields. The Van Allen radiation belts consist of charged particles trapped in the earth's magnetic field.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.