As penetrating radiation moves from point to point in matter, it loses its energy through various interactions with the atoms it encounters. The rate at which this energy loss occurs depends upon the type and energy of the radiation and the density and atomic composition of the matter through which it is passing.
The various types of penetrating radiation impart their energy to matter primarily through excitation and ionization of orbital electrons. The term "excitation" is used to describe an interaction where electrons acquire energy from a passing charged particle but are not removed completely from their atom. Excited electrons may subsequently emit energy in the form of x-rays during the process of returning to a lower energy state. The term "ionization" refers to the complete removal of an electron from an atom following the transfer of energy from a passing charged particle. In describing the intensity of ionization, the term "specific ionization" is often used. This is defined as the number of ion pairs formed per unit path length for a given type of radiation.
Because of their double charge and relatively slow velocity, alpha particles have a high specific ionization and a relatively short range in matter (a few centimeters in air and only fractions of a millimeter in tissue). Beta particles have a much lower specific ionization than alpha particles and, generally, a greater range. For example, the relatively energetic beta particles from P32 have a maximum range of seven meters in air and eight millimeters in tissue. The low energy betas from H3, on the other hand, are stopped by only six millimeters of air or six micrometers of tissue.
Gamma-rays, x-rays, and neutrons are referred to as indirectly ionizing radiation since, having no charge, they do not directly apply impulses to orbital electrons as do alpha and beta particles. Electromagnetic radiation proceeds through matter until there is a chance of interaction with a particle. If the particle is an electron, it may receive enough energy to be ionized, whereupon it causes further ionization by direct interactions with other electrons. As a result, indirectly ionizing radiation (e.g. gamma, x-rays, and neutrons) can cause the liberation of directly ionizing particles (electrons) deep inside a medium. Because these neutral radiations undergo only chance encounters with matter, they do not have finite ranges, but rather are attenuated in an exponential manner. In other words, a given gamma ray has a definite probability of passing through any medium of any depth.
Neutrons lose energy in matter by collisions which transfer kinetic energy. This process is called moderation and is most effective if the matter the neutrons collide with has about the same mass as the neutron. Once slowed down to the same average energy as the matter being interacted with (thermal energies), the neutrons have a much greater chance of interacting with a nucleus. Such interactions can result in material becoming radioactive or can cause radiation to be given off.