Most applications of X rays are based on their ability to pass through matter. This ability varies with different substances; e.g., wood and flesh are easily penetrated, but denser substances such as lead and bone are more opaque. The penetrating power of X rays also depends on their energy. The more penetrating X rays, known as hard X rays, are of higher frequency and are thus more energetic, while the less penetrating X rays, called soft X rays, have lower energies. X rays that have passed through a body provide a visual image of its interior structure when they strike a photographic plate or a fluorescent screen; the darkness of the shadows produced on the plate or screen depends on the relative opacity of different parts of the body.
Photographs made with X rays are known as radiographs or skiagraphs. Radiography has applications in both medicine and industry, where it is valuable for diagnosis and nondestructive testing of products for defects. Fluoroscopy is based on the same techniques, with the photographic plate replaced by a fluorescent screen (see fluorescence; fluoroscope); its advantages over radiography in time and cost are balanced by some loss in sharpness of the image. X rays are also used with computers in CAT (computerized axial tomography) scans to produce cross-sectional images of the inside of the body.
Another use of radiography is in the examination and analysis of paintings, where studies can reveal such details as the age of a painting and underlying brushstroke techniques that help to identify or verify the artist. X rays are used in several techniques that can provide enlarged images of the structure of opaque objects. These techniques, collectively referred to as X-ray microscopy or microradiography, can also be used in the quantitative analysis of many materials. One of the dangers in the use of X rays is that they can destroy living tissue and can cause severe skin burns on human flesh exposed for too long a time. This destructive power is used in X-ray therapy to destroy diseased cells.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.