Scientists have shown that gamma rays can be bent like ordinary light, in an experiment that opens the door to far-reaching new fields of imaging research.
Gamma rays are essentially a highly energetic form of light.
Having the ability to bend and focus gamma rays could lead to powerful new medical applications, including imaging techniques and targeted cancer treatments.
One potential use is the remote scanning of nuclear materials or radioactive waste, with implications for combating terrorism.
Gamma rays can penetrate almost any material, including thick layers of lead. They can also distinguish between different atomic versions, or isotopes, of the same element.
A gamma scanner, using a focused beam, could look for nuclear material concealed in ships or trucks without having to risk opening them up.
In the same way, it could remotely identify nuclear waste in sealed containers.
Microscopes and other instruments exist which can focus X-rays, another form of high-energy light.
But until now scientists have not been able to demonstrate that it is possible to bend even more powerful gamma rays.
The team at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, achieved this feat using an advanced version of a common classroom experiment.
In the same way that light beams can be bent and split with glass prisms, they succeeded in bending gamma rays with a silicon prism.
The scientists believe that by replacing silicon with other materials, such as gold, it should be possible to build optical devices for manipulating gamma rays.
The research is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
One of the ILL researchers, Dr Michael Jentschel, said: "Twenty years ago many people doubted you could do optics with X-rays - no-one even considered that it might be possible for gamma rays too.
"This is a remarkable and completely unexpected discovery with significant scientific implications and practical applications. These include isotope-specific microscopy with benefits across the scientific disciplines, through to direct medical treatment and even tools to address major national security issues."
The research will now shift towards developing the technique into working tools, the scientists said.
Until now, doubts about the practicability of gamma optics have led to limited research in the field and a lack of suitable gamma ray sources.