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Electromagnetic Spectrum

Wavelength, Frequency, And Energy, Wavelength Regions

The electromagnetic spectrum encompasses a continuous range of frequencies or wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, ranging from long wavelength, low energy radio waves to short wavelength, high frequency, high-energy gamma rays. The electromagnetic spectrum is traditionally divided into regions of radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet rays, x rays, and gamma rays.

Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell's (1831–1879) development of a set of equations that accurately described electromagnetic phenomena allowed the mathematical and theoretical unification of electrical and magnetic phenomena. When Maxwell's calculated speed of light fit well with experimental determinations of the speed of light, Maxwell and other physicists realized that visible light should be a part of a broader electromagnetic spectrum containing forms of electromagnetic radiation that varied from visible light only in terms of wavelength and wave frequency. Frequency is defined as the number of wave cycles that pass a particular point per unit time, and is commonly measured in Hertz (cycles per second). Wavelength defines the distance between adjacent points of the electromagnetic wave that are in equal phase (e.g., wavecrests).

Exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum quickly resulted practical advances. German physicist Henrich Rudolph Hertz regarded Maxwell's equations as a path to a "kingdom" or "great domain" of electromagnetic waves. Based on this insight, in 1888, Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves. A decade later, Wilhelm Röent gen's discovery of high-energy electromagnetic radiation in the form of x rays quickly found practical medical use.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, German physicist, Maxwell Planck, proposed that atoms absorb or emit electromagnetic radiation only in certain bundles termed quanta. In his work on the photoelectric effect, German-born American physicist Albert Einstein used the term photon to describe these electromagnetic quanta. Planck determined that energy of light was proportional to its frequency (i.e., as the frequency of light increases, so does the energy of the light). Planck's constant, h = 6.626 × 1034 joule-second in the meter-kilogram-second system (4.136 × 1015 eV-sec), relates the energy of a photon to the frequency of the electromagnetic wave and allows a precise calculation of the energy of electromagnetic radiation in all portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Although electromagnetic radiation is now understood as having both photon (particle) and wave-like properties, descriptions of the electromagnetic spectrum generally utilize traditional wave-related terminology (i.e., frequency and wavelength).

Electromagnetic fields and photons exert forces that can excite electrons. As electrons transition between allowed orbitals, energy must be conserved. This conservation is achieved by the emission of photons when an electron moves from a higher potential orbital energy to a lower potential orbital energy. Accordingly, light is emitted only at certain frequencies characteristic of every atom and molecule. Correspondingly, atoms and molecules absorb only a limited range of frequencies and wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, and reflect all the other frequencies and wavelengths of light. These reflected frequencies and wavelengths are often the actual observed light or colors associated with an object.

The region of the electromagnetic spectrum that contains light at frequencies and wavelengths that stimulate the rod and cones in the human eye is termed the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Color is the association the eye makes with selected portions of that visible region (i.e., particular colors are associated with specific wavelengths of visible light). A nanometer (109 m) is the most common unit used for characterizing the wavelength of visible light. Using this unit, the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is located between 380 nm–750 nm and the component color regions of the visible spectrum are Red (670–770 nm), Orange (592–620 nm), Yellow (578–592 nm), Green (500–578 nm), Blue (464–500 nm), Indigo (444–464 nm), and Violet

TABLE 1
Region Frequency (Hz) Wavelength (m) Energy (eV) Size Scale
Radio waves < 109 > 0.3 < 7x 10-7 Mountains, building
Microwaves 109 - 3x1011 0.001 - 0.3 7x10-7 - 2x10-4  
Infrared 3x1011 - 3.9x1014 7.6x10-7 - 0.001 2x10-4 - 0.3  
Visible 3.9x1014 - 7.9x1014 3.8x10-7 - 7.6x10-7 0.3 - 0.5 Bacteria
Ultraviolet 7.9x1014 - 3.4x1016 8x10-9 - 3.8x10-7 0.5 - 20 Viruses
X-rays 3.4x1016 - 5x1019 6x10-12 - 8x10-9 20 - 3x10 4 Atoms
Gamma Rays > 5x1019 < 6x10-12 > 3x104 Nuclei

TABLE 2
Red 6300 - 7600 Å
Orange 5900 - 6300 Å
Yellow 5600 - 5900 Å
Green 4900 - 5600 Å
Blue 4500 - 4900 Å


(400–446 nm). Because the energy of electromagnetic radiation (i.e., the photon) is inversely proportional to the wavelength, red light (longest in wavelength) is the lowest in energy. As wavelengths contract toward the blue end of the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum, the frequencies and energies of colors steadily increase.

Like colors in the visible spectrum, other regions in the electromagnetic spectrum have distinct and important components. Radio waves, with wavelengths that range from hundreds of meters to less than a centimeter, transmit radio and television signals. Within the radio band, FM radio waves have a shorter wavelength and higher frequency than AM radio waves. Still higher frequency radio waves with wavelengths of a few centimeters can be utilized for RADAR imaging.

Microwaves range from approximately 1 ft (30 cm) in length to the thickness of a piece of paper. The atoms in food placed in a microwave oven become agitated (heated) by exposure to microwave radiation. Infrared radiation comprises the region of the electromagnetic spectrum where the wavelength of light is measured region from one millimeter (in wavelength) down to 400 nm. Infrared waves are discernible to humans as thermal radiation (heat). Just above the visible spectrum in terms of higher energy, higher frequency and shorter wavelengths is the ultraviolet region of the spectrum with light ranging in wavelength from 400 to 10 billionths of a meter. Ultraviolet radiation is a common cause of sunburn even when visible light is obscured or blocked by clouds. X rays are a highly energetic region of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from about ten billionths of a meter to 10 trillionths of a meter. The ability of x rays to penetrate skin and other substances renders them useful in both medical and industrial radiography. Gamma rays, the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation, are comprised of light with wavelengths of less than about ten trillionths of a meter and include waves with wavelengths smaller than the radius of an atomic nucleus (1015 m). Gamma rays are generated by nuclear reactions (e.g., radioactive decay, nuclear explosions, etc.).

Cosmic rays are not a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Cosmic rays are not a form of electromagnetic radiation, but are actually high-energy charged particles with energies similar to, or higher than, observed gamma electromagnetic radiation energies.


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