200px-Gamma Decay

Diagram of an emission of a gamma ray (γ) from an atomic nucleus


Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays (denoted as γ), is electromagnetic radiation of high frequency (very short wavelength). They are produced by sub-atomic particle interactions such as electron-positron annihilation, neutral pion decay, radioactive decay (including isomeric transition which involves an inhibited gamma decay), fusion, fission or inverse Compton scattering in astrophysical processes. Gamma rays have frequencies above 10 exahertz (1019 Hz), and therefore have energies above 100 keV and wavelength less than 10 picometers, often smaller than an atom. Gamma rays from radioactive decay commonly have energies of a few hundred keV, and almost always less than 10 MeV. The upper limit for such energies is about 20 MeV, and there is effectively no lower limit (they are sometimes classed as x-rays if their frequencies are lower than 1019 Hz).

Because gamma rays are a form of ionizing radiation, they pose a health hazard.

Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900, while studying radiation emitted from radium. Alpha and beta "rays" had already been separated and named by the work of Ernest Rutherford in 1899, and in 1903 Rutherford named Villard's distinct new radiation "gamma rays."

The distinction between X-rays and gamma rays has changed in recent decades. Originally, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by X-ray tubes had a longer wavelength than the radiation emitted by radioactive nuclei (gamma rays). 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, as shorter wavelength continuous spectrum "X-ray" sources such as linear accelerators and longer wavelength "gamma ray" emitters were discovered, the wavelength bands largely overlapped. The two types of radiation are now usually distinguished by their origin: X-rays are emitted by electrons outside the nucleus, while gamma rays are emitted by the nucleus.

Units of measure[]

Listed are units of measure and exposure of ionizing radiation .

Units of measure and exposure of ionizing gamma rays
Name Modern (US) unit of exposure name Traditional (SI) unit of exposure name Expression in terms of other SI units Symbol
röntgen roentgen roentgen C/kg R
sievert sievert equivalent dose or rem J/kg Sv
grey grey absorbed dose or rad J/kg Gy