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Electromagnetic radiation A-Z

Electromagnetic radiation   A form of energy that travels in waves at the speed of light. Unlike other forms of energy, such as sound waves, radiant energy can travel through empty space (a vacuum). Radio waves, microwaves, light, heat and X-rays are all forms of electromagnetic radiation. They all travel at the speed of light, but have different wavelengths—the distance between one wave crest and the next—and therefore different frequencies—the number of waves per second. Different forms of electromagnetic radiation are grouped in the electromagnetic spectrum according to their wavelengths. Those with shorter wavelengths carry the most energy. Visible light is the only part of the spectrum that we can see.

Gamma rays   A form of electromagnetic radiation with a very high frequency and short wavelength. They are given out by radioactive atoms or produced in nuclear reactions. They can pass right through some substances.

Infrared (IR) radiation   A form of electromagnetic radiation, with a wavelength just longer than that of visible red light. It is the radiation that you feel as heat from hot objects. IR radiation is used for short-range communications, such as in television remote controls and remote locking in cars.

Maxwell, James Clerk   (1831–1879) Scottish physicist who discovered the existence of electromagnetic waves.

Microwaves   A form of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than infrared radiation. Microwaves are used in communications. Some microwave frequencies can also be used in cooking.

Photons   Light and other forms of radiant energy can either be thought of as waves or as tiny particles, called photons. Photons have no mass or electrical charge. They travel at the speed of light.

Radar (Radio Detection And Ranging)   A system that detects objects by transmitting radio waves and receiving the “echoes” that bounce back from them. Radar is used by ships and aeroplanes to detect other craft or oncoming storms.

Radio waves   A form of electromagnetic radiation with a very long wavelength. Radio waves are important in communications through air and space.

Röntgen, Wilhelm   (1845–1923) German physicist who discovered X-rays.

Transmitter   An electronic device that sends out electromagnetic waves, such as radio waves.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation   A form of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength just shorter than that of visible violet light. Some of the energy emitted by the Sun takes the form of UV radiation. Most UV rays from the Sun are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, but they still cause tanning of the skin and sunburn.

Visible light    The part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Light waves with slightly different wavelengths appear as different colours. The colour red has the longest wavelength and violet has the shortest wavelength.

X-rays   A form of electromagnetic radiation with very short wavelengths and extremely high frequencies. They pass right through some solids. In medicine they can be used to see the structure of bones and internal organs by placing a patient between an X-ray source and a photographic film or camera.

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