Saturday, January 8, 2011

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The Electromagnetic Spectrum, technically speaking, is the range of frequencies that a photon wave can assume. The photon is essentially the particle of light, and this particle has many interesting properties.

First, a photon has no mass, which means it can travel at a speed unlimited by its mass. The speed at which the light particle can travel in a vacuum defines the fastest known speed in the Universe, namely the speed of light, or 186,292 miles per second. Second, the photon can have properties of both a particle and a wave. But when dealing with the electromagnetic spectrum, the wave form of a photon is most important.

The electromagnetic spectrum deals with all possible photon waves, each of which are composed of the same particle, but have different energies. Along with energy, the three properties of a specific electromagnetic wave are amplitude, wavelength and frequency.

Electromagnetic waves are in a sinusoid form, meaning that they are shaped like the red line above. The distance, A, from the sinusoid axis to the peak of the curve is known as the amplitude of the wave, and the distance between peaks is known as the wavelength, while the distance between crossings of the sinusoid axis are half of a wavelength. The remaining element, frequency, is how many wavelengths the wave goes through over a certain period of time. The horizontal axis (x) on the graph above is the passage of time, and over this time, the wave modulates, or moves from peak to peak, in a cyclic manner.

The different electromagnetic waves are separated by varying amplitude and wavelength. The above chart shows five different wave types. The horizontal axis represents time, as before. On the top of the chart is the wave with the highest wavelength, but lowest frequency, and as one goes down the chart, the wavelength decreases and the frequency increases. The two properties are inversely proportional because an electromagnetic wave is traveling at a constant speed through a vacuum, the speed of light, and therefore the wavelength determines a length of time between wave peaks, namely frequency. Wavelength is measured in meters, while frequency is measured in a unit called a Hertz (Hz), with 1 Hz meaning one wavelength per second.

The entire electromagnetic spectrum (click to enlarge), including names given to specific areas of the spectrum, some uses of particular wavelengths, and the corresponding wavelength and frequency axes. The plot is a log scale of base 10, meaning that instead of counting up 1, 2, 3... the graph counts 10^1, 10^2, 10^3... The frequency increases from the bottom to the top, starting at 10^6, and ending at 10^19, and the wavelength counts in meters (m), using symbols like cm to represent increments of meters.

The waves are as follows, from lowest to highest frequency are: radio waves, microwaves, infrared rays, visible light, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma rays. Each of these have their own individual posts. Click on one to enter and begin exploring the electromagnetic spectrum.


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