Radiation

The Invisible Energy Around Us

Radiation—it’s a word that often conjures up images of hazardous materials and danger. But what exactly is radiation? Is it always harmful? Today, let’s explore the world of radiation to demystify this invisible force.

At its core, radiation refers to the emission of energy in the form of waves (or particles). These waves can travel through space and even penetrate solid objects. To understand the various forms of radiation, let’s start by exploring the electromagnetic spectrum.

The electromagnetic spectrum encompasses a range of waves, from low-energy radio waves to high-energy gamma rays. Each type of wave has different characteristics and uses in our daily lives. For instance, radio waves transmit signals to our radios and cell phones, allowing us to stay connected. Similarly, microwaves help heat our food quickly and efficiently.

Non-ionizing and ionizing radiation have different wavelengths directly related to their energy. (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA)

Non-ionizing and ionizing radiation have different wavelengths directly related to their energy. (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA)

Moving along the spectrum, we encounter infrared radiation, which we feel as heat. This type of radiation is emitted by warm objects and is used in thermal imaging cameras and remote controls. Think of how your TV remote communicates with your television through infrared signals.

Visible light, the vibrant colors we perceive, is another form of radiation. It enables us to see the world around us, from the dazzling hues of a sunset to the subtle shades of a flower.

All these lower energy radiation types are called non-ionizing radiation. They have enough energy to make molecules (in matter or living organisms) vibrate, generating heat but not enough to detach electrons from atoms. For the majority of individuals, non-ionizing radiation does not pose a health risk in everyday life.

Beyond visible light, we encounter another category of radiation: ionizing. Ionizing radiation carries enough energy to remove tightly bound electrons from atoms, resulting in the formation of charged particles called ions. This type of radiation has the potential to harm cells or organs within our bodies or even cause death.

While UV rays are not typically considered ionizing radiation, they possess enough energy to cause ionization indirectly, leading to various health issues, including sunburn, premature skin aging, and an increased risk of skin cancer.

Examples of ionizing radiation. (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA)

Examples of ionizing radiation. (Infographic: Adriana Vargas/IAEA)

Ionizing radiation is produced by unstable atoms that have excess energy or mass. It can also be generated by high-voltage devices like X-ray machines. Unstable atoms that undergo decay are referred to as “radioactive atoms.” During this decay, they emit ionizing radiation in the form of alpha or beta particles, gamma rays, or neutrons. When used safely and appropriately, harnessing this radiation can lead to a range of benefits. It plays a vital role in energy production, industrial processes, scientific research, and medical diagnostics and treatments, including the management of cancer.

The potential harm caused by ionizing radiation depends on the dose, duration of exposure, and specific circumstances. Safety measures such as shielding, distance, and following safety guidelines are essential in minimizing the risks associated with radiation exposure.

Interestingly, there is a natural “background” radiation present everywhere. This ubiquitous background radiation originates from cosmic rays in space and naturally occurring radioactive materials found in the earth (such as uranium and thorium) and living organisms.

Words of Wisdom

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” ―Marie Curie

“Happiness [is] only real when shared” ―Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down.” —Charlie Chaplin

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” —Oprah Winfrey

Bibliography

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