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9.3: The Electromagnetic Spectrum

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     Learning Objectives
    • Know the properties of different types of electromagnetic radiation.

    Electromagnetic waves have an extremely wide range of wavelengths, frequencies, and energies. The highest energy form of electromagnetic waves are gamma (γ) rays and the lowest energy form are radio waves.

    The figure below shows the electromagnetic spectrum, which is all forms of electromagnetic radiation. On the far left of Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) are the highest energy electromagnetic waves. These are called gamma rays and can be quite dangerous, in large numbers, to living systems. The next lower energy form of electromagnetic waves are called x-rays. Most of you are familiar with the penetration abilities of these waves. They can also be dangerous to living systems. Humans are advised to limit as much as possible the number of medical x-rays they have per year. Next lower, in energy, are ultraviolet rays. These rays are part of sunlight and the upper end of the ultraviolet range can cause sunburn and perhaps skin cancer. The tiny section next in the spectrum is the visible range of light. The visible light spectrum has been greatly expanded in the bottom half of the figure so that it can be discussed in more detail. The visible range of electromagnetic radiation are the frequencies to which the human eye responds. Lower in the spectrum are infrared rays and radio waves.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The electromagnetic spectrum, with its various regions labeled. The borders of each region are approximate. (CC BY-NC-SA; anonymous by request).

    The light energies that are in the visible range are electromagnetic waves that cause the human eye to respond when those frequencies enter the eye. The eye sends a signal to the brain and the individual "sees" various colors. The highest energy waves in the visible region cause the brain to see violet and as the energy decreases, the colors change to blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. When the energy of the wave is above or below the visible range, the eye does not respond to them. When the eye receives several different frequencies at the same time, the colors are blended by the brain. If all frequencies of light strike the eye together, the brain sees white. If there are no visible frequencies striking the eye, the brain sees black. The objects that you see around you are light absorbers—that is, the chemicals on the surface of the object will absorb certain frequencies and not others. Your eyes detect the frequencies that strike your eye. Therefore, if your friend is wearing a red shirt, it means the dye in that shirt absorbs every frequency except red and the red frequencies are reflected. If your only light source was one exact frequency of blue light and you shined it on a shirt that was red in sunlight, the shirt would appear black because no light would be reflected. The light from fluorescent types of lights do not contain all the frequencies of sunlight and so clothes inside a store may appear to be a slightly different color when you get them home.


    • Electromagnetic radiation has a wide spectrum, including gamma rays, X-rays, UV rays, visible light, IR radiation, microwaves, and radio waves.
    • The different colors of light differ in their frequencies (or wavelengths).

    9.3: The Electromagnetic Spectrum is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.