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Chapter 11: Gamma rays and x-rays

...Holmes leaned in, his eyes gleaming with curiosity, as he shared his insights about x-rays with Watson...

Gamma rays and x-rays are both forms of electromagnetic radiation, but they have distinct characteristics and origins. Gamma rays, the most energetic photons in the electromagnetic spectrum, are emitted from the nucleus of radioactive atoms. French physicist Henri Becquerel is credited with discovering gamma radiation in 1896 while studying uranium minerals. Gamma photons are pure electromagnetic energy with no mass or electrical charge, and they travel at the speed of light. Due to their high energy, gamma rays can pass through various materials, including human tissue, and are shielded by dense substances like lead.

On the other hand, x-rays are produced either through electron structure changes in atoms or by machines. They originate outside the nucleus in the electron fields surrounding it. X-rays have slightly lower energy compared to gamma rays and can be stopped by a few millimeters of lead. X-rays are commonly used in medical and industrial applications, such as dental and medical procedures, inspections, and process controls.

Gamma radiation emission occurs when the nucleus of a radioactive atom has excessive energy, often following the emission of a beta particle. Gamma emitters like cobalt-60, cesium-137, and technetium-99m have widespread applications in various fields. Cobalt-60 is utilized to sterilize medical equipment, pasteurize foods, treat cancer, and measure metal thickness. Cesium-137 is used in cancer treatment, industrial liquid flow control, subterranean strata investigation, and soil density measurement. Technetium-99m, the most widely used radioactive isotope for diagnostic studies, finds applications in brain, bone, liver, spleen, and kidney imaging, as well as blood flow studies.

Exposure to gamma radiation primarily occurs through naturally occurring radionuclides like potassium-40 and radium, as well as man-made sources like nuclear medicine. Gamma and x-rays can directly penetrate tissue, exposing all organs, making them both external hazards. However, internal exposure can also occur if gamma-emitting radionuclides are inhaled or ingested with food or water.

The health effects of gamma radiation can be severe, particularly during radiological emergencies. Gamma rays' ability to travel great distances and their penetrating power make them a significant concern. Protecting oneself from gamma radiation involves specialized equipment for detection and awareness of radiation warning symbols.

In conclusion, gamma rays and x-rays are forms of electromagnetic radiation with unique properties and origins. Understanding their characteristics and applications is crucial for managing exposure and ensuring safety in various settings, including medical, industrial, and environmental contexts.

Holmes and Watson are not radiologists
The inspector being exposed to x-rays

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