History and Modern Applications of X-Rays

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History and Modern Applications of X-Rays

We see X-Rays all the time in television, science fiction novels, and comic book superheroes, but what is fact and what is fiction? By examining their makeup, history, modern applications, dangers, protection, and even possible future developments we can understand these scientific marvels far better and more accurately than watching an episode of Star Trek or reading a Superman comic.

First and most important is to analyze why an X-ray works and what it is. These “rays” are high energy, low wavelength beams of electromagnetic energy – very similar to the light we can see; only they are completely invisible to us because our eyes lack the ability to detect its wavelength. They are produced by the movement of electrons in atoms. Electrons exist in constant orbit around an atom’s nucleus in different levels of energy, also known as orbitals. When an electron makes the transition – drops - to a lower orbital, it needs to release some energy – which it does in the form of a photon. The energy level of this photon corresponds to how far the electron dropped between orbitals. So when a photon collides with another atom, the energy in the photon sometimes gets absorbed and boosts an electron in that atom to a higher level, but only if the amount of energy in the photon (from the 1st electrons drop) matches the energy required to boost the 2nd electron. Otherwise, the photon will not shift electrons between orbitals. That means that while visible light often has just the right energy to be absorbed by most objects, X-Ray photons will pass through almost everything because they contain far too much energy to be absorbed. Thus, by using a high-voltage vacuum tube to accelerate and release high energy electrons at a large velocity, we are capable of emitting X-rays at one end of an object. By placing an X-ray detector on the other side, something like a photographic plate, film, screen, or any other type of what is known as...
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