What Are Gamma Rays? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Wave?
  • 0:45 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
  • 1:25 Gamma Rays on Earth
  • 2:10 Gamma Rays in Outer Space
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Explore gamma rays and where they fit in relationship to other forms of electromagnetic energy, such as radio waves and x-rays. Learn what events and celestial bodies produce gamma rays, from nuclear explosions to supernovas.

Gamma Rays: Really, Really Intense Waves of Energy

Simply put, a wave is a transfer of energy. For example, the waves surfers ride were created by energy from wind. Sound also travels in waves, moving from the source of the sound, through the air, to your eardrums. Sound and ocean waves are both mechanical waves because they need a medium to travel through, such as air or water.

Electromagnetic waves are also the result of energy - electric and magnetic energy, to be precise - but, unlike mechanical waves, EM waves do not need a medium to travel through. This is why electromagnetic waves, like infrared waves and gamma rays, can exist in outer space, while sound cannot because it needs air to travel through.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Electromagnetic Spectrum

We organize electromagnetic waves on a spectrum based on the distance between waves and the frequency of waves, or the number of waves that occur per second. The faster the wave frequency, which we measure in hertz (Hz), the shorter the distance between waves and the greater the amount of energy they produce. The weakest and least frequent EM waves are radio waves, and the most powerful and most frequent waves are gamma rays - you can see them on the far right hand side of the spectrum. If you think of it in terms of music genres, radio waves would be easy listening and gamma rays would be heavy metal.

Gamma Rays on Earth

The waves at the far end of the spectrum move so rapidly and emit so much energy that they are no longer thought of as individual S-shaped waves but rather as strong rays of energy. Think about how much energy is present in visible light like the Sun or a light bulb, and then multiply that energy by ten billion, and you have an idea of how much power we are talking about here.

Gamma rays come from radioactive sources. On Earth, they are created as a result of nuclear explosions, like when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They are also emitted by lightning and by radioactive fallout, which is the extremely hazardous radiation left over after a nuclear explosion.

Gamma Rays in Outer Space

From pulsars to neutron stars, space is full of naturally occurring gamma rays. Since they aren't part of the spectrum of visible light, we can't see gamma rays and other electromagnetic waves like radio waves and x-rays. Scientists have had to imagine what it would look like if we could see all the electromagnetic activity in the night sky. Exploding supernovas and other gamma-ray bursts, or bursters, would light up like fireworks at least once or as many as five times a day.

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