The Physics
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Wavelength of the Shortest Electromagnetic Waves

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Ardley, Neil and Matthews, Robert. Physics Today.Chicago:World Book, 1985: 99. "These gamma rays constitute electromagnetic radiation of extremely short wavelength, from about 10−10 m down to 10−15 m or less………." < 10−15 m
"Electromagnetic Radiation". Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 10. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, 1994: 156. "Beyond X-rays lie gamma rays, with wavelengths of 0.01 Å or smaller. These are the shortest electromagnetic waves known." < 10−12 m
Gamma. Abbey Newsletter. Vol. 8, No. 2 (April 1984). "High-energy photons of wavelength shorter than 0.1 nm emitted from atomic nuclei during radioactive decay." < 10−10 m
"Color". The New Book of Popular Science. Vol. 6. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, 1980: 287. "The waves of gamma rays emitted from radioactive materials may be less than 5/100,000,000,000 of a centimeter in length." < 5 × 10−11 m
Davidson, Michael W. & Abramowitz, Mortimer. The Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation. Molecular Expressions. Florida State University: Olympus America Inc., 2001. "This high energy radiation has wavelengths ranging from 0.1 to 0.000001 nanometers." 10−15 m

5.5 trillionths of an inch! It sounds very infinitesimal, but gamma rays of the electromagnetic spectrum have wavelengths of that size and shorter. The lengths range from 10−10 meters to 10−15 meters or shorter. There is no absolute lower limit to the extent of the shortest wavelength because it has not yet been reached. These waves are generated by radioactive atoms and in nuclear explosions, such as supernova explosions or the destruction of atoms. Things like neutron stars and pulsars, and black holes are all sources of gamma rays in space. These rays have the most electromagnetic energy of any other rays in the spectrum. They have tremendous penetrating ability and have been reported to be able to pass through 3 meters of concrete. Also, as a medicinal advantage, gamma rays can be used to kill cancerous cells.

Unlike visible light and X-rays, gamma rays cannot be captured and reflected in mirrors. The high-energy photons would pass right through. Gamma-ray telescopes use a process called Compton scattering, where a gamma-ray strikes an electron and loses energy.

Today, there are bursts of gamma rays in deep space, which happen at least once a day. They last for fractions of a second to a minute. Gamma-ray bursts can release more energy in 10 seconds than the Sun will emit in its entire 10 billion-year lifetime!

If we had gamma-ray vision, we would be able to peer into the hearts of solar flares, supernovae, neutron stars, black holes, and galaxies. It is a wonder that such powerful energies are generated from such a tiny wavelength.

Elena Won -- 2001