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The Nature of Light

large magnets, longest wavelength, monochromatic light, electromagnetic wave, wavelength of visible light

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The electromagnetic spectrum refers to the entire range of frequencies or wavelengths of electromagnetic waves (see Electromagnetic Radiation). Light traditionally refers to the range of frequencies that can be seen by humans. The frequencies of these waves are very high, about one-half to three-quarters of a million billion (5 x 1014 to 7.5 x 1014) Hz. Their wavelengths range from 400 to 700 nm. X rays have wavelengths ranging from several thousandths of a nanometer to several nanometers, and radio waves have wavelengths ranging from several meters to several thousand meters.

Waves with frequencies a little lower than the range of human vision (and with wavelengths correspondingly longer) are called infrared. Waves with frequencies a little higher and wavelengths shorter than human eyes can see are called ultraviolet. About half the energy of sunlight at Earth’s surface is visible electromagnetic waves, about 3 percent is ultraviolet, and the rest is infrared.

Each different frequency or wavelength of visible light causes our eye to see a slightly different color. The longest wavelength we can see is deep red at about 700 nm. The shortest wavelength humans can detect is deep blue or violet at about 400 nm. Most light sources do not radiate monochromatic light. What we call white light, such as light from the Sun, is a mixture of all the colors in the visible spectrum, with some represented more strongly than others. Human eyes respond best to green light at 550 nm, which is also approximately the brightest color in sunlight at Earth’s surface.

Light Emission

Polarization refers to the direction of the electric field in an electromagnetic wave. A wave whose electric field is oscillating in the vertical direction is said to be polarized in the vertical direction. The photons of such a wave would interact with matter differently than the photons of a wave polarized in the horizontal direction. The electric field in light waves from the Sun vibrates in all directions, so direct sunlight is called unpolarized. Sunlight reflected from a surface is partially polarized parallel to the surface. Polaroid sunglasses block light that is horizontally polarized and therefore reduce glare from sunlight reflecting off horizontal surfaces.


Not all light comes from atoms. In a synchrotron light source, electrons are accelerated by microwaves and kept in a circular orbit by large magnets. The whole machine, called a synchrotron, resembles a large artificial atom. The circulating electrons can be made to radiate very monochromatic light at a wide range of frequencies.

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