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This article is about the term's use in physics. For other uses, see Gamma ray (disambiguation).

Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays, and denoted by the Greek letter γ, refers to electromagnetic radiation of an extremely high frequency and therefore consists of high-energy photons. Gamma rays are ionizing radiation, and are thus biologically hazardous. They are classically produced by the decay of atomic nuclei as they transition from a high energy state to a lower state known as gamma decay, but may also be produced by other processes. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900, while studying radiation emitted from radium. Villard's radiation was named "gamma rays" by Ernest Rutherford in 1903.

Natural sources of gamma rays on Earth include gamma decay from naturally occurring radioisotopes, and secondary radiation from atmospheric interactions with cosmic ray particles. Rare terrestrial natural sources produce gamma rays that are not of a nuclear origin, such as lightning strikes and terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. Additionally, gamma rays are produced by a number of astronomical processes in which very high-energy electrons are produced, that in turn cause secondary gamma rays via bremsstrahlung, inverse Compton scattering, and synchrotron radiation. However, a large fraction of such astronomical gamma rays are screened by Earth's atmosphere and can only be detected by spacecraft.

Gamma rays typically have frequencies above 10 exahertz (or >10 Hz), and therefore have energies above 100 keV and wavelengths less than 10 picometers (10 meter), which is less than the diameter of an atom. However, this is not a hard and fast definition, but rather only a rule-of-thumb description for natural processes. Electromagnetic radiation from radioactive decay of atomic nuclei is referred to as "gamma rays" no matter its energy, so that there is no lower limit to gamma energy derived from radioactive decay. This radiation commonly has energy of a few hundred keV, and almost always less than 10 MeV. In astronomy, gamma rays are defined by their energy, and no production process needs to be specified. The energies of gamma rays from astronomical sources range to over 10 TeV, an energy far too large to result from radioactive decay. A notable example is extremely powerful bursts of high-energy radiation referred to as long duration gamma-ray bursts, of energies higher than can be produced by radioactive decay. These bursts of gamma rays, thought to be due to the collapse of stars called hypernovae, are the most powerful events so far discovered in the cosmos.


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