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Electromagnetic waves can be imagined as a self-propagating transverse oscillating wave of electric and magnetic fields. This diagram shows a plane linearly polarized wave propagating from right to left. The electric field is in a vertical plane, the magnetic field in a horizontal plane.

Electromagnetic radiation (sometimes abbreviated EMR) is an ubiquitous phenomenon that takes the form of self-propagating waves in a vacuum or in matter. It consists of electric and magnetic field components which oscillate in phase perpendicular to each other and perpendicular to the direction of energy propagation. Electromagnetic radiation is classified into several types according to the frequency of its wave; these types include (in order of increasing frequency and decreasing wavelength): radio waves, microwaves, terahertz radiation, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. A small and somewhat variable window of frequencies is sensed by the eyes of various organisms; this is what we call the visible spectrum, or light.

EM radiation carries energy and momentum that may be imparted to matter with which it interacts.

Theory[]

Shows three electromagnetic modes (blue, green and red) with a distance scale in micrometres along the x-axis. Main article: Maxwell's equations

Electromagnetic waves were first postulated by James Clerk Maxwell and subsequently confirmed by Heinrich Hertz. Maxwell derived a wave form of the electric and magnetic equations, revealing the wave-like nature of electric and magnetic fields, and their symmetry. Because the speed of EM waves predicted by the wave equation coincided with the measured speed of light, Maxwell concluded that light itself is an EM wave.

According to Maxwell's equations, a time-varying electric field generates a magnetic field and vice versa. Therefore, as an oscillating electric field generates an oscillating magnetic field, the magnetic field in turn generates an oscillating electric field, and so on. These oscillating fields together form an electromagnetic wave.

A quantum theory of the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter such as electrons is described by the theory of quantum electrodynamics.

Properties[]

Electromagnetic waves can be imagined as a self-propagating transverse oscillating wave of electric and magnetic fields. This diagram shows a plane linearly polarized wave propagating from right to left. The electric field is in a vertical plane, the magnetic field in a horizontal plane.

The physics of electromagnetic radiation is electrodynamics, a sub-field of electromagnetism. Electric and magnetic fields obey the properties of superposition so that a field due to any particular particle or time-varying electric or magnetic field will contribute to the fields present in the same space due to other causes: as they are vector fields, all magnetic and electric field vectors add together according to vector addition. For instance, a traveling EM wave incident on an atomic structure induces oscillation in the atoms of that structure, thereby causing them to emit their own EM waves, emissions which alter the impinging wave through interference. These properties cause various phenomena including refraction and diffraction.

Since light is an oscillation it is not affected by travelling through static electric or magnetic fields in a linear medium such as a vacuum. However in nonlinear media, such as some crystals, interactions can occur between light and static electric and magnetic fields — these interactions include the Faraday effect and the Kerr effect.

In refraction, a wave crossing from one medium to another of different density alters its speed and direction upon entering the new medium. The ratio of the refractive indices of the media determines the degree of refraction, and is summarized by Snell's law. Light disperses into a visible spectrum as light is shone through a prism because of the wavelength dependent refractive index of the prism material (Dispersion).

EM radiation exhibits both wave properties and particle properties at the same time (see wave-particle duality). Both wave and particle characteristics have been confirmed in a large number of experiments. Wave characteristics are more apparent when EM radiation is measured over relatively large timescales and over large distances while particle characteristics are more evident when measuring small timescales and distances. For example, when electromagnetic radiation is absorbed by matter, particle-like properties will be more obvious when the average number of photons in the cube of the relevant wavelength is much smaller than 1. Upon absorption the quantum nature of the light leads to clearly non-uniform deposition of energy.

There are experiments in which the wave and particle natures of electromagnetic waves appear in the same experiment, such as the diffraction of a single photon. When a single photon is sent through two slits, it passes through both of them interfering with itself, as waves do, yet is detected by a photomultiplier or other sensitive detector only once. Similar self-interference is observed when a single photon is sent into a Michelson interferometer or other interferometers.

Wave model[]

White light being separated into its components.

An important aspect of the nature of light is frequency. The frequency of a wave is its rate of oscillation and is measured in hertz, the SI unit of frequency, where one hertz is equal to one oscillation per second. Light usually has a spectrum of frequencies which sum together to form the resultant wave. Different frequencies undergo different angles of refraction.

A wave consists of successive troughs and crests, and the distance between two adjacent crests or troughs is called the wavelength. Waves of the electromagnetic spectrum vary in size, from very long radio waves the size of buildings to very short gamma rays smaller than atom nuclei. Frequency is inversely proportional to wavelength, according to the equation:

\displaystyle v=f\lambda

where v is the speed of the wave (c in a vacuum, or less in other media), f is the frequency and λ is the wavelength. As waves cross boundaries between different media, their speeds change but their frequencies remain constant.

Interference is the superposition of two or more waves resulting in a new wave pattern. If the fields have components in the same direction, they constructively interfere, while opposite directions cause destructive interference.

The energy in electromagnetic waves is sometimes called radiant energy.

Particle model[]

Because energy of an EM wave is quantized, in the particle model of EM radiation, a wave consists of discrete packets of energy, or quanta, called photons. The frequency of the wave is proportional to the magnitude of the particle's energy. Moreover, because photons are emitted and absorbed by charged particles, they act as transporters of energy. The energy per photon can be calculated from the Planck–Einstein equation:

\displaystyle E=hf

where E is the energy, h is Planck's constant, and f is frequency. This photon-energy expression is a particular case of the energy levels of the more general electromagnetic oscillator whose average energy, which is used to obtain Planck's radiation law, can be shown to differ sharply from that predicted by the equipartition principle at low temperature, thereby establishes a failure of equipartition due to quantum effects at low temperature[2].

As a photon is absorbed by an atom, it excites an electron, elevating it to a higher energy level. If the energy is great enough, so that the electron jumps to a high enough energy level, it may escape the positive pull of the nucleus and be liberated from the atom in a process called photoionisation. Conversely, an electron that descends to a lower energy level in an atom emits a photon of light equal to the energy difference. Since the energy levels of electrons in atoms are discrete, each element emits and absorbs its own characteristic frequencies.

Together, these effects explain the absorption spectra of light. The dark bands in the spectrum are due to the atoms in the intervening medium absorbing different frequencies of the light. The composition of the medium through which the light travels determines the nature of the absorption spectrum. For instance, dark bands in the light emitted by a distant star are due to the atoms in the star's atmosphere. These bands correspond to the allowed energy levels in the atoms. A similar phenomenon occurs for emission. As the electrons descend to lower energy levels, a spectrum is emitted that represents the jumps between the energy levels of the electrons. This is manifested in the emission spectrum of nebulae. Today, scientists use this phenomenon to observe what elements a certain star is composed of. It is also used in the determination of the distance of a star, using the red shift.

Speed of propagation[]

Main article: Speed of light

Any electric charge which accelerates, or any changing magnetic field, produces electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic information about the charge travels at the speed of light. Accurate treatment thus incorporates a concept known as retarded time (as opposed to advanced time, which is unphysical in light of causality), which adds to the expressions for the electrodynamic electric field and magnetic field. These extra terms are responsible for electromagnetic radiation. When any wire (or other conducting object such as an antenna) conducts alternating current, electromagnetic radiation is propagated at the same frequency as the electric current. At the quantum level, electromagnetic radiation is produced when the wavepacket of a charged particle oscillates or otherwise accelerates. Charged particles in a stationary state do not move, but a superposition of such states may result in oscillation, which is responsible for the phenomenon of radiative transition between quantum states of a charged particle.

Depending on the circumstances, electromagnetic radiation may behave as a wave or as particles. As a wave, it is characterized by a velocity (the speed of light), wavelength, and frequency. When considered as particles, they are known as photons, and each has an energy related to the frequency of the wave given by Planck's relation E = hν, where E is the energy of the photon, h = 6.626 × 10-34 J·s is Planck's constant, and ν is the frequency of the wave.

One rule is always obeyed regardless of the circumstances: EM radiation in a vacuum always travels at the speed of light, relative to the observer, regardless of the observer's velocity. (This observation led to Albert Einstein's development of the theory of special relativity.)

In a medium (other than vacuum), velocity factor or refractive index are considered, depending on frequency and application. Both of these are ratios of the speed in a medium to speed in a vacuum.

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