Properties of Light

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oscillating electric 
and magnetic fields
Electric and magnetic fields oscillate together but perpendicular to each other and the electromagnetic wave moves in a direction perpendicular to both of the fields.

Light, electricity, and magnetism are manifestations of the same thing called electromagnetic radiation. The energy you see coming out of the computer screen you are using to read this page is made of fluctuating electric and magnetic energy fields. The electric and magnetic fields oscillate at right angles to each other and the combined wave moves in a direction perpendicular to both of the electric and magnetic field oscillations. This energy also comes in many forms that are not detectable with our eyes such as infrared (IR), radio, X-rays, ultraviolet (UV), and gamma rays.

We feel infrared light as heat and our radios pick up the messages encoded in radio waves emitted by radio stations. Ultraviolet light has high enough energy to damage our skin cells, so our bodies will produce a darker pigment in our skin to prevent exposure of the deeper skin cells to the UV (we tan as a defense mechanism). The special bulbs called ``black lights'' produce a lot of UV and were used by hospitals to kill bacteria, amoebas, and other micro-organisms. X-rays are produced by very hot things in space. X-rays have more energy than UV, so they can pass through skin, muscles, and organs. They are blocked by bones, so when the doctor takes your X-ray, the picture that results is the shadow image of the X-rays that passed through your body. Because X-rays have such high energy, they can damage or kill cells. A few brief exposures to low-intensity X-rays is okay. The X-ray technician would be exposed to thousands of X-ray exposures if s/he did not use some sort of shielding. Gamma rays are the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation and are produced in nuclear reactions.

the EM spectrum from gamma rays to 

The form of electromagnetic radiation your eyes can detect is called ``visible'' or ``optical''. Astronomers have only recently (within the past few decades) been able to use the other forms of electromagnetic radiation or light. Every time technology has been developed to detect another form of light, a revolution in our understanding of the universe has occurred. The figure above shows all of the forms of electromagnetic radiation in order of INcreasing wavelength (given in nanometers (nm)) and DEcreasing energy. Notice how tiny the visible band is!

There are some general properties shared by all forms of electromagnetic radiation:

  1. It can travel through empty space. Other types of waves need some sort of medium to move through: water waves need liquid water and sound waves need some gas, liquid, or solid material to be heard.

  2. The speed of light is constant in space. All forms of light have the same speed of 299,800 kilometers/second in space (often abbreviated as c). From highest energy to lowest energy the forms of light are Gamma rays, X-rays, Ultraviolet, Visible, Infrared, Radio. (Microwaves are high-energy radio waves.)

  3. A wavelength of light is defined similarly to that of water waves---distance between crests or between troughs. Visible light (what your eye detects) has wavelengths 4000-8000 Ångstroms. 1 Ångstrom = 10-10 meter. Visible light is sometimes also measured in nanometers (``nm'' in the figure above): 1 nanometer = 10-9 meter = 10 Ångstroms, so in nanometers, the visible band is from 400 to 800 nanometers. Radio wavelengths are often measured in centimeters: 1 centimeter = 10-2 meter = 0.01 meter. The abbreviation used for wavelength is the greek letter lambda: l.

White light is made of different colors (wavelengths). When white light is passed through a prism or diffraction grating, it is spread out into all of its different colors. You see this happen every time you see a rainbow.

double rainbow

Not all wavelengths of light from space make it to the surface. Only long-wave UV, Visible, parts of the IR and radio bands make it to surface. More IR reaches elevations above 9,000 feet (2765 meters) elevation. That is one reason why modern observatories are built on top of very high mountains. Fortunately, as far as life is concerned, our atmosphere shields us from the gamma rays, X-rays, and most of the UV. It also blocks most of the IR and parts of the radio. Astronomers were not able to detect these forms of energy from celestial objects until the space age, when they could put satellite observatories in orbit.

Besides using wavelength to describe the form of light, you can also use the frequency--the number of crests of the wave that pass by a point every second. Frequency is measured in units of hertz (Hz): 1 hertz = 1 wave crest/second. For light there is a simple relation between the speed of light (c), wavelength (l), and frequency (f):

f = c/l.
Since the wavelength l is in the bottom of the fraction, the frequency is inversely proportional to the wavelength. This means that light with a smaller wavelength has a higher (larger) frequency. Light with a longer wavelength has a lower (smaller) frequency.

small wavelength 
high frequency
The animation shows waves with different wavelengths moving to the right with the same speed. The bottom wave has a wavelength = 3×(wavelength of the top wave). The counter shows how many wavelengths of the top wave have passed the dashed line. In one second, the top wave moves three wavelengths to the right so its frequency is 3 Hz. The bottom wave moves one of its wavelengths in one second so its frequency is 1 Hz (= 1/3×top wave frequency).

Some colors and their approximate wavelength, frequency and energy ranges are given in the table below. The unit of energy is the Joule (J). A Joule is how much energy you expend when you lift an object with 1 kilogram of mass (for example, a liter of water) about 10 centimeters above the ground. If you then let it go, the object hits the ground with that much energy. Sometimes light energy is also measured in ``ergs'', where 1 erg = 10-7 Joule.

color l () f (*1014 Hz) Energy (*10-19 J)
violet 4000 to 4600 7.5 to 6.5 5.0 to 4.3
indigo 4600 to 4750 6.5 to 6.3 4.3 to 4.2
blue 4750 to 4900 6.3 to 6.1 4.2 to 4.1
green 4900 to 5650 6.1 to 5.3 4.1 to 3.5
yellow 5650 to 5750 5.3 to 5.2 3.5 to 3.45
orange 5750 to 6000 5.2 to 5.0 3.45 to 3.3
red 6000 to 8000 5.0 to 3.7 3.3 to 2.5
Note the trends: bluer light has shorter l, higher f, and more energy. Redder light has longer l, lower f, and less energy.

colors and their wavelengths

Max Planck At the beginning of the 20th century Max Planck (lived 1858--1947) suggested that atoms can absorb and emit energy in only discrete chunks (called quanta). This quantum behavior of atoms could explain the drop-off of a continuous spectrum's shape at the short wavelength end. A few years after Planck's discovery Albert Einstein (lived 1879--1955) discovered that the quantum of energy was not due to the atoms but, rather, a property of the energy itself. You can consider light as packets of energy called photons. A photon is a particle of electromagnetic radiation. Bizarre though it may be, light is both a particle and a wave. Whether light behaves like a wave or like a particle depends on how the light is observed (it depends on the experimental setup)! Albert Einstein Einstein found a very simple relationship between the energy of a light wave (photon) and its frequency:

Energy of light = h × f
Energy of light = (h × c)/l,
where h is a universal constant of nature called ``Planck's constant'' = 6.63 × 10-34 J·sec.

Light can also behave as a particle and a wave at the same time. An example of light acting as both a particle and a wave is the digital camera---the lens refracts (bends and focusses) waves of light that hit a charge-coupled device (CCD). The photons kick electrons out of the silicon in the CCD. The electrons are detected by electronics that interpret the number of electrons released and their position of release from the silicon to create an image. Another example is when you observe the build-up of the alternating light and dark pattern from diffraction (a wave phenomenon) from light passing through a narrow slit. You see one bright spot (a photon), then another bright spot (another photon), then another... until the diffraction pattern is created from all of the accumulated photons. This happens so quickly that it is undetectable to the human eye.

light is both a wave 
and a particle

To decode the information stored in light, you pass the light through a prism or diffraction grating to create a spectrum---any display of the intensity of light (EM radiation) at different wavelengths or frequencies (a picture or a graph of intensity vs. either wavelength or frequency). If white light is examined, then the spectrum will be a rainbow.

difference between energy and 

The term intensity has a particular meaning here: it is the number of waves or photons of light reaching your detector; a brighter object is more intense but not necessarily more energetic. Remember that a photon's energy depends on the wavelength (or frequency) only, not the intensity. The photons in a dim beam of X-ray light are much more energetic than the photons in an intense beam of infrared light.

The type of light produced by an object will depend on its temperature, so let's digress slightly to investigate what ``temperature'' is. Temperature is a measure of the random motion (or energy) of a group of particles. Higher temperature (T) means more random motion (or energy). A natural scale would have zero motion at zero degrees (absolute zero). This scale is the Kelvin scale. It scales exactly like the Celsius system, but it is offset by 273 degrees. Here is a comparison of the Kelvin, Celsius, and Fahrenheit temperature scales:

0 -273 -459 absolute zero
100 -173 -279.4
273 0 32 water freezes
310 37 98.6 human temperature
373 100 212 water boils (STP)
755 482 900 oven on ``clean'' setting
5840 5567 10053 Sun's temperature


electromagnetic radiation frequency hertz
intensity Kelvin photon
spectroscopy spectrum temperature


  1. Frequency and wavelength relation: f = c/l.
  2. Energy of a photon: E = h×f, where h is a constant of nature.
  3. Energy of a photon: E = (h×c)/l.

Review Questions

  1. Why is light so very important to astronomy? What kinds of information can you get from it?
  2. Why is light called electromagnetic radiation? Is radio a form of light?
  3. Put the following forms of light in order of increasing frequency (lowest frequency first): ultraviolet, infrared, gamma rays, visible, radio, X-rays. Put them in order of increasing wavelength (shortest wavelength first). Put them in order of increasing energy (lowest energy first).
  4. Do all forms of light travel at the same speed in a vacuum (empty space)? Why is it important that light can travel through empty space?
  5. What forms of light can be observed from the ground (including high mountains)? What forms can be observed at high altitudes in our atmosphere? What forms must be observed in space?
  6. Is electromagnetic radiation a wave or a particle? What determines if you will see light as a wave or a photon?
  7. Which of these are a spectrum: plot of intensity vs. wavelength, plot of intensity vs. brightness, plot of frequency vs. wavelength, rainbow, plot of acceleration vs. time, plot of energy vs. frequency.
  8. What is the difference between intensity and energy? If a particular CCD chip requires light energies of 4.2 × 10-19 J to release electrons from the silicon, which will produce more electrons (and hence, a brighter computer image): an intense beam of yellow light or a dim beam of UV light? Explain your answer!
  9. Why is the Kelvin scale preferred over the Celsius or the Fahrenheit scales?
  10. Where is absolute zero on the three temperature scales? Where is the Sun's temperature on the three temperature scales?

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last updated: January 8, 2013

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel