radiation, 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.

Band of very faint light in the night sky. It is thought to be sunlight reflected from interplanetary dust grains lying mostly in the plane of the zodiac, or ecliptic. Seen in the west after twilight and in the east before dawn, it is most clearly visible in the tropics, where the ecliptic is approximately perpendicular to the horizon. In midnorthern latitudes it is best seen evenings in February and March and mornings in September and October (vice versa in midsouthern latitudes). The light can be followed visually to a point about 90° from the Sun. It continues to the region opposite the Sun, where a slight enhancement, the gegenschein, is visible.

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Distance traveled by light moving in a vacuum in one year, at its accepted speed of 186,282 mi/second (299,792 km/second). It equals about 5.9 trillion mi (9.5 trillion km), 63,240 astronomical units, or 0.307 parsec.

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Semiconductor diode that produces visible or infrared light when subjected to an electric current, as a result of electroluminescence. Visible-light LEDs are used in many electronic devices as indicator lamps (e.g., an on/off indicator) and, when arranged in a matrix, to spell out letters or numbers on alphanumeric displays. Infrared LEDs are used in optoelectronics (e.g., in auto-focus cameras and television remote controls) and as light sources in some long-range fibre-optic communications systems. LEDs are formed by the so-called III-V compound semiconductors related to gallium arsenide. They consume little power and are long-lasting and inexpensive.

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That portion of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye. It ranges from the red end to the violet end of the spectrum, with wavelengths from 700 to 400 nanometres and frequencies from 4.3 × 1014 to 7.5 × 1014 Hz. Like all electromagnetic radiation, it travels through empty space at a speed of about 186,000 mi/sec (300,000 km/sec). In the mid-19th century, light was described by James Clerk Maxwell in terms of electromagnetic waves, but 20th-century physicists showed that it exhibits properties of particles as well; its carrier particle is the photon. Light is the basis for the sense of sight and for the perception of colour. Seealso optics; wave-particle duality.

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Portion of the electromagnetic spectrum extending from the violet end of visible light to the X-ray region. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation lies between wavelengths of about 400 nanometres and 10 nanometres, corresponding to frequencies of 7.5 × 1014 Hz to 3 × 1016 Hz. Most UV rays from the Sun are absorbed by the Earth's ozone layer. UV has low penetrating power, so its effects on humans are limited to the skin. These effects include stimulation of production of vitamin D, sunburn, suntan, aging signs, and carcinogenic changes. UV radiation is also used to treat jaundice in newborns, to sterilize equipment, and to produce artificial light.

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Process by which energy is emitted by a warm surface. The energy is electromagnetic radiation and so travels at the speed of light and does not require a medium to carry it. Thermal radiation ranges in frequency from infrared rays through visible light to ultraviolet rays. The intensity and frequency distribution of the emitted rays are determined by the nature and temperature of the emitting surface; in general, the hotter the object, the shorter the wavelength. A hotter object is a better emitter than a cooler one, and a blackened surface is a better emitter than a silvered one. An example of thermal radiation is the heating of the Earth by the Sun.

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Electromagnetic radiation emitted by charged particles that are moving at speeds close to that of light when their paths are altered. It is so called because it is produced by high-speed particles in a synchrotron. Such radiation is highly polarized (see polarization) and continuous. Its intensity and frequency depend on the strength of the magnetic field that alters the path of the particles, as well as on the energy of those particles. Synchrotron radiation at radio frequencies is emitted by high-energy electrons as they spiral through magnetic fields in space, such as those around Jupiter. Synchrotron radiation is emitted by a variety of astronomical objects, from planets to supernova remnants to quasars.

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or radiotherapy or therapeutic radiology

Use of radiation sources to treat or relieve diseases, usually cancer (including leukemia). The ionizing radiation primarily used to destroy diseased cells works best on fast-growing cancers. However, radiation can also cause cancer (see radiation injury) and is no longer used for benign conditions. Other complications include nausea, hair loss, weight loss, and weakness. Radioactive substances may be implanted in tumours (see nuclear medicine). External radiation involves 10–20 sessions over several months, either after surgical removal of the growth or when surgery is impossible; it can deliver higher doses to deep tumours than implantation. Infrared radiation and ultraviolet radiation is applied with lamps to relieve inflammation.

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Pressure on a surface resulting from electromagnetic radiation that impinges on it. The pressure is a result of the momentum carried by the radiation. When radiation is reflected rather than absorbed, the radiation pressure is doubled. Radiation pressure can sometimes be great enough to produce a force that is useful.

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Tissue damage caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. Structures with rapid cell turnover (e.g., skin, stomach or intestinal lining, and bone marrow) are most susceptible. High-dose irradiation of the last two causes radiation sickness. Nausea and vomiting subside in a few hours. They are followed in intestinal cases by abdominal pain, fever, and diarrhea leading to dehydration and a fatal shocklike state, and in bone-marrow cases (two to three weeks later) by fever, weakness, hair loss, infection, and hemorrhage. In severe cases, death occurs from infection and uncontrollable bleeding. Lower radiation doses can cause cancer (notably leukemia and breast cancer), sometimes years later. Radiation exposure in early pregnancy can produce abnormalities in the embryo, whose cells are multiplying rapidly.

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Process by which energy is emitted from a source and propagated through the surrounding medium, or the energy involved in this process. Radiation consists of a flow of atomic or subatomic particles or of waves. Familiar examples are light (a form of electromagnetic radiation) and sound (a form of acoustic radiation). Both electromagnetic and acoustic radiation can be described as waves with a range of frequencies and intensities. Electromagnetic radiation is also often treated as discrete packets of energy, called photons. All matter is constantly bombarded by radiation from cosmic and terrestrial sources, and radioactive elements emit several types of radiation (see radioactivity). Seealso Cherenkov radiation, Hawking radiation, infrared radiation, synchrotron radiation, thermal radiation, ultraviolet radiation.

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Device that produces and amplifies electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range of the spectrum. The first maser was built in 1951 by Charles H. Townes. Its name is an acronym for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” The wavelength produced by a maser is so constant and reproducible that it can be used to control a clock that will gain or lose no more than a second over hundreds of years. Masers have been used to amplify faint signals returned from radar and communications satellites, and have made it possible to measure faint radio waves emitted by Venus, giving an indication of the planet's temperature. The maser was the principal precursor of the laser.

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Device that produces an intense beam of coherent light (light composed of waves having a constant difference in phase). Its name, an acronym derived from “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” describes how its beam is produced. The first laser, constructed in 1960 by Theodore Maiman (born 1927) based on earlier work by Charles H. Townes, used a rod of ruby. Light of a suitable wavelength from a flashlight excited (see excitation) the ruby atoms to higher energy levels. The excited atoms decayed swiftly to slightly lower energies (through phonon reactions) and then fell more slowly to the ground state, emitting light at a specific wavelength. The light tended to bounce back and forth between the polished ends of the rod, stimulating further emission. The laser has found valuable applications in microsurgery, compact-disc players, communications, and holography, as well as for drilling holes in hard materials, alignment in tunnel drilling, long-distance measurement, and mapping fine details.

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Portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that extends from the microwave range to the red end of the visible light range. Its wavelengths vary from about 0.7 to 1,000 micrometres. Most of the radiation emitted by a moderately heated surface is infrared, and it forms a continuous spectrum. Molecular excitation produces extensive infrared radiation but in a discrete spectrum of lines or bands. Infrared wavelengths are useful for night-vision equipment, heat-seeking missiles, molecular spectroscopy, and infrared astronomy, among other things. The trapping of infrared radiation by atmospheric gases is also the basis of the greenhouse effect.

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Energy propagated through free space or through a material medium in the form of electromagnetic waves. Examples include radio waves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X rays, and gamma rays. Electromagnetic radiation exhibits wavelike properties such as reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference, but also exhibits particlelike properties in that its energy occurs in discrete packets, or quanta. Though all types of electromagnetic radiation travel at the same speed, they vary in frequency and wavelength, and interact with matter differently. A vacuum is the only perfectly transparent medium; all others absorb some frequencies of electromagnetic radiation.

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bremsstrahlung(German; “braking radiation”)

Electromagnetic radiation produced by a sudden slowing down or deflection of charged particles, especially electrons, passing through matter in the vicinity of the strong electric fields of atomic nuclei. It occurs as cosmic rays pass through the Earth's atmosphere and accounts for continuous X-ray spectra.

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Light produced by charged particles when they pass through an optically transparent medium at speeds greater than the speed of light in that medium. For example, when electrons from a nuclear reactor travel through shielding water, they do so at a speed greater than that of light through water and they displace some electrons from the atoms in their path. This causes emission of electromagnetic radiation that appears as a weak bluish-white glow. The phenomenon is named for Pavel A. Cherenkov (1904–1990), who discovered it; he shared a 1958 Nobel Prize with Igor Y. Tamm (1895–1971) and Ilya M. Frank (1908–1990), who interpreted the effect.

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Radiation, as in physics, is energy in the form of waves or moving subatomic particles emitted by an atom or other body as it changes from a higher energy state to a lower energy state. Radiation can be classified as ionizing or non-ionizing radiation, depending on its effect on atomic matter. The most common use of the word "radiation" refers to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to ionize atoms or molecules while non-ionizing radiation does not. Radioactive material is a physical material that emits ionizing radiation.

Types of Radiation

There are three principal types of ionizing radiation: alpha, beta and gamma radiation. They are all emitted from the nucleus of an unstable atom. Less commonly encountered are spontaneous nuclear fission, positron emission, and neutron emission. Electron capture results in the spontaneous emission of an X-ray. Certain isotopes of radium have a decay mode where they emit an entire 12C6 nucleus.


Wilhelm Röntgen is credited with the discovery of X-Rays. When experimenting with various isotopes of tritium, he noticed a drastic change in photonic emissions when measuring electrical charges in a vacuum. When he took pictures of the tritium, he found that the state of one solid piece would deteriorate quickly. Henri Becquerel found that uranium salts caused fogging of an unexposed photographic plate, and Marie Curie discovered that only certain elements gave off these rays of energy. She named this behaviour radioactivity.

In December of 1899, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in pitchblende. This new element was two million times more radioactive than uranium, as described by Marie.

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