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Electromagnetic Spectrum

Wavelength, Frequency, And Energy

The wavelength of radiation is sometimes given in units with which we are familiar, such as inches or centimeters, but for very small wavelengths, they are often given in angstroms (abbreviated Å). There are 10,000,000,000 angstroms in 3.3 ft (1 m).

An alternative way of describing a wave is by its frequency, or the number of peaks which pass a particular point in one second. Frequencies are normally given in cycles per second, or hertz (abbreviation Hz), after Hertz. Other common units are kilohertz (kHz, or thousands of cycles per second), megahertz (MHz, millions of cycles per second), and gigahertz (GHz, billions of cycles per second). The frequency and wavelength, when multiplied together, give the speed of the wave. For electromagnetic waves in empty space, that speed is the speed of light, which is approximately 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km per sec).

In addition to the wave-like properties of electromagnetic radiation, it also can behave as a particle. The energy of a particle of light, or photon, can be calculated from its frequency by multiplying by Planck's constant. Thus, higher frequencies (and lower wavelengths) have higher energy. A common unit used to describe the energy of a photon is the electron volt (eV). Multiples of this unit, such as keV (1000 electron volts) and MeV (1,000,000 eV), are also used.

Properties of waves in different regions of the spectrum are commonly described by different notation. Visible radiation is usually described by its wavelength, for example, while x rays are described by their energy. All of these schemes are equivalent, however; they are just different ways of describing the same properties.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryElectromagnetic Spectrum - Wavelength, Frequency, And Energy, Wavelength Regions