Gamma Rays Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Kaarin Goncz

Kaarin has taught science from K-12 to seniors and has a doctorate in Biophysics

Gamma rays may sound like something from a science fiction movie but they are actually a type of energy called electromagnetic radiation. There are seven different kinds of electromagnetic radiation, but gamma rays are unique and you will learn about their discovery, origins, and uses in this lesson.

Different Types of Electromagnetic Radiation

Think about playing outside on a bright, sunny day and feeling the sun's rays on your face. The sun's rays feel warm and help us see because they have energy. Energy is important because it helps us do things! The energy that keeps us warm is called heat and the energy that helps us see is called visible light. Visible light is a type of energy that scientists call electromagnetic radiation. There are seven different kinds of electromagnetic radiation. You have probably heard of some of these terms because we use them in our homes. Did you know that a microwave oven can heat food because it uses a kind of electromagnetic radiation energy called microwaves? The seven kinds of electromagnetic radiation are radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.

Gamma rays have the highest energy in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Gamma rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation

Each kind of electromagnetic radiation has a different amount of energy. Radio waves have the lowest amount of energy and we use them to talk over long distances. Gamma rays have the highest amount of energy and we use them in medicine and science.

Discovery of Gamma Rays

Gamma rays were the last kind of electromagnetic radiation to be discovered. Paul Villard, a French scientist, was working with a material called radium, which produced X-rays, but he also noticed that it produced another kind of electromagnetic radiation with a much higher energy. This new kind of electromagnetic energy would go right through his experiment even when the X-rays had been stopped! Three years later, in 1903, this new kind of electromagnetic radiation was finally given a name - gamma rays.

Origin of Gamma Rays

Other scientists who were studying radium noticed that it produced two other types of rays which were called alpha and beta rays. Once scientists were able to detect these three types of rays, they noticed that some other types of material would also produce these same three rays. It was decided that any material that produced these rays would be called radioactive.

Most material, like your shoes or your clothes or your pet, don't produce these rays so you don't have to worry! For a long time, scientists thought that gamma rays could only be produced by radioactive material. It wasn't until the 1950s that scientists realized gamma rays might also be produced in space. The reason we couldn't detect them on earth was because our atmosphere was protecting us. When a rocket was launched above the atmosphere, astronomers found gamma rays that were being produced from neutron stars and pulsars, supernova explosions, and regions around black holes.

In space, gamma rays are produced from neutron stars.
Neutron stars produce gamma rays

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