For medical radiography see: Radiology
Radiography is the use of X-rays to view unseen or hard-to-image objects. The main diagnostic purposes of X-rays are to see inside ones' body, especially of the brain and fetus, where the bones can be viewed at an optimum resolution (128 shades of grey). The impact on society of this technique has also been immense. Physicists and researchers have developed numerous types of medicines to assist in the function and development of organs such as the brain and heart, and radiography has improved the economy of most countries in the western world due to the employment of physicists and doctors.
Radiography is used for both medical and industrial applications (see medical radiography and industrial radiography). If the object being examined is living, whether human or animal, it is regarded as medical; all other radiography is regarded as industrial radiographic work.
Radiography started in 1895 with the discovery of X-rays, also referred to as Röntgen rays after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen who first described their properties in rigorous detail. These previously unknown rays (hence the X) were found to be a type of electromagnetic radiation. It wasn't long before X-rays were used in various applications, from helping to fit shoes, to the medical uses that have persisted. X-rays were put to diagnostic use very early, before the dangers of ionizing radiation were discovered. Indeed Madam Curie pushed for radiography to be used to treat wounded soldiers in world war I. Initially, many kinds of staff conducted radiography in hospitals, including physicists, photographers, doctors, nurses, and engineers. The medical specialty of radiology grew up over many years around the new technology. When new diagnostic tests involving X-rays were developed, it was natural for the radiographers to be trained in and to adopt this new technology. This happened first with fluoroscopy, computed tomography (1970s), mammography, ultrasound (1970s), and magnetic resonance imaging (1980s). Although a nonspecialist dictionary might define radiography quite narrowly as "taking X-ray images", this has long been only part of the work of "X-ray departments", radiographers, and radiologists.
The types of electromagnetic radiation of most interest to radiography are X-ray and gamma radiation. This radiation is much more energetic than the more familiar types such as radio waves and visible light. It is this relatively high energy which makes gamma rays useful in radiography but potentially hazardous to living organisms.
The radiation is produced by X-ray tubes, high energy X-ray equipment or natural radioactive elements, such as radium and radon, and artificially produced radioactive isotopes of elements, such as cobalt-60 and iridium-192. Electromagnetic radiation consists of oscillating electric and magnetic fields, but is generally depicted as a single sinusoidal wave. While in the past radium and radon have both been used for radiography, they have fallen out of use as they are radiotoxic alpha radiation emitters which are expensive; iridium-192 and cobalt-60 are far better photon sources. For further details see commonly used gamma emitting isotopes.
Such a wave is characterised by its wavelength (the distance from a point on one cycle to the corresponding point on the next cycle) or its frequency (the number of oscillations per second). In a vacuum, all electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed, the speed of light (c). The wavelength (λ, lambda) and the frequency (f) are all related by the equation:
This is true for all electromagnetic radiation.
Electromagnetic radiation is known by various names, depending on its energy. The energy of these waves is related to the frequency and the wavelength by the relationship:
Gamma rays are indirectly ionizing radiation. A gamma ray passes through matter until it undergoes an interaction with an atomic particle, usually an electron. During this interaction, energy is transferred from the gamma ray to the electron, which is a directly ionizing particle. As a result of this energy transfer, the electron is liberated from the atom and proceeds to ionize matter by colliding with other electrons along its path. Other times, the passing gamma ray interferes with the orbit of the electron, and slows it, releasing energy but not becoming dislodged. The atom is not ionised, and the gamma ray continues on, although at a lower energy. This energy released is usually heat or another, weaker photon, and causes biological harm as a radiation burn. The chain reaction caused by the initial dose of radiation can continue after exposure, much like a sunburn continues to damage skin even after one is out of direct sunlight.
For the range of energies commonly used in radiography, the interaction between gamma rays and electrons occurs in two ways. One effect takes place where all the gamma ray's energy is transmitted to an entire atom. The gamma ray no longer exists and an electron emerges from the atom with kinetic (motion in relation to force) energy almost equal to the gamma energy. This effect is predominant at low gamma energies and is known as the photoelectric effect. The other major effect occurs when a gamma ray interacts with an atomic electron, freeing it from the atom and imparting to it only a fraction of the gamma ray's kinetic energy. A secondary gamma ray with less energy (hence lower frequency) also emerges from the interaction. This effect predominates at higher gamma energies and is known as the Compton effect.
In both of these effects the emergent electrons lose their kinetic energy by ionizing surrounding atoms. The density of ions so generated is a measure of the energy delivered to the material by the gamma rays.
The most common means of measuring the variations in a beam of radiation is by observing its effect on a photographic film. This effect is the same as that of light, and the more intense the radiation is, the more it darkens, or exposes, the film. Other methods are in use, such as the ionizing effect measured electronically, its ability to discharge an electrostatically charged plate or to cause certain chemicals to fluoresce as in fluoroscopy.