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Radiation warning symbol

The radiation warning symbol (trefoil).

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

  • electro-magnetic radiation (also known as "continuum radiation") γ such as radio waves, visible light, and x-rays
  • particle radiation such as α, β, and neutron radiation (discrete energy per particle)
  • acoustic radiation such as ultrasound, sound, and seismic waves. (dependent on intervening mass for transmission)


Radiation is often categorized as either ionizing or non-ionizing depending on the energy of the radiated particles. Ionizing radiation carries more than 10 eV, which is enough to ionize atoms and molecules, and break chemical bonds. This is an important distinction due to the large difference in harmfulness to living organisms. A common source of ionizing radiation is radioactive materials that emit α, β, or γ radiation, consisting of helium nuclei, electrons or positrons, and photons, respectively. Other sources include X-rays from medical radiography examinations and muons, mesons, positrons, neutrons and other particles that constitute the secondary cosmic rays that are produced after primary cosmic rays interact with Earth's atmosphere.

Pripyat AmusementPark

The amusement park in Pripyat, is an example of a radioactive hotspot.

Gamma rays, X-rays and the higher energy range of ultraviolet light constitute the ionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The lower-energy, longer-wavelength part of the spectrum including visible light, infrared light, microwaves, and radio waves is non-ionizing; its main effect when interacting with tissue is heating. This type of radiation only damages cells if the intensity is high enough to cause excessive heating. Ultraviolet radiation has some features of both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. While the part of the ultraviolet spectrum that penetrates the Earth's atmosphere is non-ionizing, this radiation does far more damage to many molecules in biological systems than can be accounted for by heating effects, sunburn being a well-known example. These properties derive from ultraviolet's power to alter chemical bonds, even without having quite enough energy to ionize atoms.

The word radiation arises from the phenomenon of waves radiating (i.e., traveling outward in all directions) from a source. This aspect leads to a system of measurements and physical units that are applicable to all types of radiation. Because such radiation expands as it passes through space, and as its energy is conserved (in vacuum), the intensity of all types of radiation from a point source follows an inverse-square law in relation to the distance from its source. This law does not apply close to an extended source of radiation or for focused beams.

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