Light Wavelength and Radiation

Electromagnetic radiation is energy given off by matter, traveling in the form of waves or particles. Electromagnetic energy exists in a wide range of energy values, of which visible light is one small part of the total spectrum. The source of radiation may be the hot and therefore highly energized atoms of the Sun, pouring out radiation across a wide range of energy values, including of course visible light, and they may also be unstable (radioactive) elements giving off radiation as they decay.

Radiation is called "electromagnetic" because it moves as interlocked waves of electrical and magnetic fields. A wave is a disturbance traveling through space, transferring energy from one point to the next. In a vacuum, all electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light, 983,319,262 feet per second (299,792,458 m/sec, often approximated as 300,000,000 m/sec). Depending on the type of radiation, the waves have different wavelengths, energies, and frequencies (see the following figure). The wavelength is the distance between individual waves, from one peak to another. The frequency is the number of waves that pass a stationary point each second. Notice in the graphic how the wave undulates up and down from peaks to valleys to peaks. The time from one peak to the next peak is called one cycle. A single unit of frequency is equal to one cycle per second. Scientists refer to a single cycle as one hertz, which commemorates 19th-century German physicist Heinrich Hertz, whose discovery of electromagnetic waves led to the development of radio. The frequency of a wave is related to its energy: The higher the frequency of a wave, the higher its energy, though its speed in a vacuum does not change.

The smallest wavelength, highest energy and frequency electromagnetic waves are cosmic rays, then as wavelength increases and energy

Electromagnetic Waves

1 One wavelength | i ,

One second

A A A A i

4 cydes/second = 4 hertz

\ / \ / \ / Electromagnetic

\ \ I \ / wave direction

1 2

\ / \ / \ / of motion


2 cydes/second = 2 hertz

Each electromagnetic wave and frequency decrease, come gamma rays, then X-rays, then ultravi-

has a measurable wavelength olet light, then visible light (moving from violet through indigo, blue, andfrequency. green, yellow, orange, and red), then infrared (divided into near, meaning near to visible, mid-, and far infrared), then microwaves, and then radio waves, which have the longest wavelengths and the lowest energy and frequency.The electromagnetic spectrum is shown in the accompanying figure and table.

As a wave travels and vibrates up and down with its characteristic wavelength, it can be imagined as vibrating up and down in a single plane, such as the plane of this sheet of paper in the case of the simple example in the figure here showing polarization. In nature, some waves change their polarization constantly so that their polarization sweeps through all angles, and they are said to be circularly polarized. In ordinary visible light, the waves are vibrating up and down in numerous random planes. Light can be shone through a special filter called a polarizing filter that blocks out all the light except that polarized in a certain direction, and the light that shines out the other side of the filter is then called polarized light.

Polarization is important in wireless communications systems such as radios, cell phones, and non-cable television.The orientation of the transmitting antenna creates the polarization of the radio waves transmitted by that antenna: A vertical antenna emits vertically polarized waves, and a horizontal antenna emits horizontally polarized waves. Similarly, a horizontal antenna is best at receiving horizontally polar-

ized waves and a vertical antenna at vertically polarized waves. The best communications are obtained when the source and receiver antennas have the same polarization. This is why, when trying to adjust television antennas to get a better signal, having the two antennae at right angles to each other can maximize the chances of receiving a signal.

The human eye stops being able to detect radiation at wavelengths between 3,000 and 4,000 angstroms, which is deep violet—also the

Electromagnetic Spectrum





Frequency (hertz)

Power-line emissions

AM radio


FM radio





Medical X-rays

Wavelength (meters)


3 x 104

3 X 102

r 14

The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from cosmic rays at the shortest wavelengths to radiowaves at the longest wavelengths.


Plane polarization

Circular polarization

Waves can be thought of as rough limit on transmissions through the atmosphere (see the table plane or circularly polarized. "Wavelengths and Frequencies of Visible Light"). (Three thousand to

4,000 angstroms is the same as 300—400 nm because an angstrom is 10-9 m, while the prefix nano- or n means 10-10; for more, see appendix 1, "Units and Measurements.") Of visible light, the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet are listed in order from longest wavelength and lowest energy to shortest wavelength and highest energy. Sir Isaac Newton, the spectacular English physicist and mathematician, first found that a glass prism split sunlight into a rainbow of colors. He named this a "spectrum," after the Latin word for ghost.

If visible light strikes molecules of gas as it passes through the atmosphere, it may get absorbed as energy by the molecule. After a short amount of time, the molecule releases the light, most probably in a different direction. The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed. All the colors of visible light can be absorbed by atmospheric molecules, but the higher energy blue light is absorbed more often than the lower energy red light. This process is called

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