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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.1: Electromagnetic Energy

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe the wave nature of light
    • Distinguish between line and continuous emission spectra

    The nature of light has been a subject of inquiry since antiquity. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton performed experiments with lenses and prisms and was able to demonstrate that white light consists of the individual colors of the rainbow combined together. Newton explained his optics findings in terms of a "corpuscular" view of light, in which light was composed of streams of extremely tiny particles travelling at high speeds according to Newton's laws of motion. Others in the seventeenth century, such as Christiaan Huygens, had shown that optical phenomena such as reflection and refraction could be equally well explained in terms of light as waves travelling at high speed through a medium called "luminiferous aether" that was thought to permeate all space. Early in the nineteenth century, Thomas Young demonstrated that light passing through narrow, closely spaced slits produced interference patterns that could not be explained in terms of Newtonian particles but could be easily explained in terms of waves. Later in the nineteenth century, after James Clerk Maxwell developed his theory of electromagnetic radiation and showed that light was the visible part of a vast spectrum of electromagnetic waves, the particle view of light became thoroughly discredited. By the end of the nineteenth century, scientists viewed the physical universe as roughly comprising two separate domains: matter composed of particles moving according to Newton's laws of motion, and electromagnetic radiation consisting of waves governed by Maxwell's equations. Today, these domains are referred to as classical mechanics and classical electrodynamics (or classical electromagnetism). Although there were a few physical phenomena that could not be explained within this framework, scientists at that time were so confident of the overall soundness of this framework that they viewed these aberrations as puzzling paradoxes that would ultimately be resolved somehow within this framework. As we shall see, these paradoxes led to a contemporary framework that intimately connects particles and waves at a fundamental level called wave-particle duality, which has superseded the classical view.

    Visible light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation play important roles in chemistry, since they can be used to infer the energies of electrons within atoms and molecules. Much of modern technology is based on electromagnetic radiation. For example, radio waves from a mobile phone, X-rays used by dentists, the energy used to cook food in your microwave, the radiant heat from red-hot objects, and the light from your television screen are forms of electromagnetic radiation that all exhibit wavelike behavior.


    A wave is an oscillation or periodic movement that can transport energy from one point in space to another. Common examples of waves are all around us. Shaking the end of a rope transfers energy from your hand to the other end of the rope, dropping a pebble into a pond causes waves to ripple outward along the water's surface, and the expansion of air that accompanies a lightning strike generates sound waves (thunder) that can travel outward for several miles. In each of these cases, kinetic energy is transferred through matter (the rope, water, or air) while the matter remains essentially in place. An insightful example of a wave occurs in sports stadiums when fans in a narrow region of seats rise simultaneously and stand with their arms raised up for a few seconds before sitting down again while the fans in neighboring sections likewise stand up and sit down in sequence. While this wave can quickly encircle a large stadium in a few seconds, none of the fans actually travel with the wave-they all stay in or above their seats.

    Waves need not be restricted to travel through matter. As Maxwell showed, electromagnetic waves consist of an electric field oscillating in step with a perpendicular magnetic field, both of which are perpendicular to the direction of travel. These waves can travel through a vacuum at a constant speed of 2.998 × 108 m/s, the speed of light (denoted by c).

    All waves, including forms of electromagnetic radiation, are characterized by, a wavelength (denoted by λ, the lowercase Greek letter lambda), a frequency (denoted by ν, the lowercase Greek letter nu), and an amplitude. As can be seen in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), the wavelength is the distance between two consecutive peaks or troughs in a wave (measured in meters in the SI system). Electromagnetic waves have wavelengths that fall within an enormous range-wavelengths of kilometers (103 m) to picometers (10−12 m) have been observed. The frequency is the number of wave cycles that pass a specified point in space in a specified amount of time (in the SI system, this is measured in seconds). A cycle corresponds to one complete wavelength. The unit for frequency, expressed as cycles per second [s−1], is the hertz (Hz). Common multiples of this unit are megahertz, (1 MHz = 1 × 106 Hz) and gigahertz (1 GHz = 1 × 109 Hz). The amplitude corresponds to the magnitude of the wave's displacement and so, in Figure, this corresponds to one-half the height between the peaks and troughs. The amplitude is related to the intensity of the wave, which for light is the brightness, and for sound is the loudness.

    This figure includes 5 one-dimensional sinusoidal waves in two columns. The column on the left includes three waves, and the column on the right includes two waves. In each column, dashed vertical line segments extend down the left and right sides of the column. A right pointing arrow extends from the left dashed line to the right dashed line in both columns and is labeled, “Distance traveled in 1 second.” The waves all begin on the left side at a crest. The wave at the upper left shows 3 peaks to the right of the starting point. A bracket labeled, “lambda subscript 1,” extends upward from the second and third peaks. Beneath this wave is the label, “nu subscript 1 equals 4 cycles per second equals 3 hertz.” The wave below has six peaks to the right of the starting point with a bracket similarly connecting the third and fourth peaks which is labeled, “lambda subscript 2.” Beneath this wave is the label, “nu subscript 2 equals 8 cycles per second equals 6 hertz” The third wave in the column has twelve peaks to the right of the starting point with a bracket similarly connecting the seventh and eighth peaks which is labeled, “lambda subscript 3.” Beneath this wave is the label, “nu subscript 3 equals 12 cycles per second equals 12 hertz.” All waves in this column appear to have the same vertical distance from peak to trough. In the second column, the two waves are similarly shown, but lack the lambda labels. The top wave in this column has a greater vertical distance between the peaks and troughs and is labeled, “Higher amplitude.” The wave beneath it has a lesser distance between the peaks and troughs and is labeled, “Lower amplitude.”
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): One-dimensional sinusoidal waves show the relationship among wavelength, frequency, and speed. The wave with the shortest wavelength has the highest frequency. Amplitude is one-half the height of the wave from peak to trough.

    Line Spectra

    One paradox within the classical electromagnetic theory that scientists in the late nineteenth century struggled with concerned the light emitted from atoms and molecules. When solids, liquids, or condensed gases are heated sufficiently, they radiate some of the excess energy as light. Photons produced in this manner have a range of energies, and thereby produce a continuous spectrum in which an unbroken series of wavelengths is present. Most of the light generated from stars (including our sun) is produced in this fashion. You can see all the visible wavelengths of light present in sunlight by using a prism to separate them. As can be seen in Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\), sunlight also contains UV light (shorter wavelengths) and IR light (longer wavelengths) that can be detected using instruments but that are invisible to the human eye. Incandescent (glowing) solids such as tungsten filaments in incandescent lights also give off light that contains all wavelengths of visible light. These continuous spectra can often be approximated by blackbody radiation curves at some appropriate temperature, such as those shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\).

    In contrast to continuous spectra, light can also occur as discrete or line spectra having very narrow line widths interspersed throughout the spectral regions such as those shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\). Exciting a gas at low partial pressure using an electrical current, or heating it, will produce line spectra. Fluorescent light bulbs and neon signs operate in this way (Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\)). Each element displays its own characteristic set of lines, as do molecules, although their spectra are generally much more complicated.

    This figure shows a colorful neon sign. The tubes are bent into various shapes.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Neon signs operate by exciting a gas at low partial pressure using an electrical current. This sign shows the elaborate artistic effects that can be achieved. (credit: Dave Shaver)

    Each emission line consists of a single wavelength of light, which implies that the light emitted by a gas consists of a set of discrete energies. For example, when an electric discharge passes through a tube containing hydrogen gas at low pressure, the H2 molecules are broken apart into separate H atoms, and we see a blue-pink color. Passing the light through a prism produces a line spectrum, indicating that this light is composed of photons of four visible wavelengths, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\).

    An image is shown with 5 rows. Across the top and bottom of the image is a scale that begins at 4000 angstroms at the left and extends to 740 angstroms at the far right. The top row is a continuous band of the visible spectrum, showing the colors from violet at the far left through indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red at the far right. The second row, labeled, “N a,” shows the emission spectrum for the element sodium, which includes two narrow vertical bands in the blue range, two narrow bands in the yellow-green range, two narrow bands in the yellow range, and one narrow band in the orange range. The third row, labeled, “H,” shows the emission spectrum for hydrogen. This spectrum shows single bands in the violet, indigo, blue, and orange regions. The fourth row, labeled, “C a,” shows the emission spectrum for calcium. This spectrum shows bands in the following colors and frequencies; one violet, five indigo, one blue, two green, two yellow-green, one yellow, two yellow-orange, one orange, and one red. The fifth row, labeled, “H g,” shows the emission spectrum for mercury. This spectrum shows bands in the following colors and frequencies; two violet, one indigo, two blue, one green, two yellow, two orange, and one orange-red. It is important to note that each of the color bands for the emission spectra of the elements matches to a specific wavelength of light. Extending a vertical line from the bands to the scale above or below the diagram will match the band to a specific measurement on the scale.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Line spectra of select gas. Compare the two types of emission spectra: continuous spectrum of white light (top) and the line spectra of the light from excited sodium, hydrogen, calcium, and mercury atoms.

    The origin of discrete spectra in atoms and molecules was extremely puzzling to scientists in the late nineteenth century, since according to classical electromagnetic theory, only continuous spectra should be observed. Even more puzzling, in 1885, Johann Balmer was able to derive an empirical equation that related the four visible wavelengths of light emitted by hydrogen atoms to whole integers. That equation is the following one, in which k is a constant:


    Other discrete lines for the hydrogen atom were found in the UV and IR regions. Johannes Rydberg generalized Balmer's work and developed an empirical formula that predicted all of hydrogen's emission lines, not just those restricted to the visible range, where, n1 and n2 are integers, n1 < n2, and \(R_∞\) is the Rydberg constant (1.097 × 107 m−1).


    Even in the late nineteenth century, spectroscopy was a very precise science, and so the wavelengths of hydrogen were measured to very high accuracy, which implied that the Rydberg constant could be determined very precisely as well. That such a simple formula as the Rydberg formula could account for such precise measurements seemed astounding at the time, but it was the eventual explanation for emission spectra by Neils Bohr in 1913 that ultimately convinced scientists to abandon classical physics and spurred the development of modern quantum mechanics.

    You will not need to be able to calculate or use these equations, but these discrete lines will help us understand some of the concepts later in this chapter.

    Contributors and Attributions


    Light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation move through a vacuum with a constant speed, c, of 2.998 × 108 m s−1. This radiation shows wavelike behavior, which can be characterized by a frequency and a wavelength. Light is an example of a travelling wave. Other important wave phenomena include standing waves, periodic oscillations, and vibrations. The emitted light can be either continuous (incandescent sources like the sun) or discrete (from specific types of excited atoms).The line spectrum of hydrogen can be obtained by passing the light from an electrified tube of hydrogen gas through a prism. This line spectrum was simple enough that an empirical formula called the Rydberg formula could be derived from the spectrum. Three historically important paradoxes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that could not be explained within the existing framework of classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism were the blackbody problem, the photoelectric effect, and the discrete spectra of atoms. The resolution of these paradoxes ultimately led to quantum theories that superseded the classical theories.


    extent of the displacement caused by a wave (for sinusoidal waves, it is one-half the difference from the peak height to the trough depth, and the intensity is proportional to the square of the amplitude)
    continuous spectrum
    electromagnetic radiation given off in an unbroken series of wavelengths (e.g., white light from the sun)
    electromagnetic radiation
    energy transmitted by waves that have an electric-field component and a magnetic-field component
    electromagnetic spectrum
    range of energies that electromagnetic radiation can comprise, including radio, microwaves, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays; since electromagnetic radiation energy is proportional to the frequency and inversely proportional to the wavelength, the spectrum can also be specified by ranges of frequencies or wavelengths
    property of wave-propagated energy related to the amplitude of the wave, such as brightness of light or loudness of sound
    line spectrum
    electromagnetic radiation emitted at discrete wavelengths by a specific atom (or atoms) in an excited state
    occurring only in specific discrete values, not continuous
    oscillation that can transport energy from one point to another in space
    distance between two consecutive peaks or troughs in a wave

    Contributors and Attributions