We already know the basics of light: it’s electromagnetic energy, carried through space as a wave, in discrete packets called photons. But photons come in a variety of energies, and different energy photons can be used for different real-world applications. The energy of a photon determines, among other things, how quickly the electromagnetic wave oscillates. Higher energy photons oscillate more quickly than lower energy photons, so we say that high-energy photons have a higher frequency.
This frequency isn’t related to the speed that the photons travel, though. They can oscillate more or fewer times over a given distance, but still traverse that distance in the same amount of time. And as we know, the speed of light is given by Maxwell’s Equations for electromagnetism, and is constant regardless of reference frame! But another way to look at frequency is by considering the wavelength of light. Picture two photons which are traveling through space, at the same speed, but with one oscillating faster than the other. Thus one photon is high-frequency and one is low-frequency. While traversing the same distance, the high-frequency photon will oscillate more times than the low-frequency photon, so the distance covered by each cycle is smaller. We call this distance for a single cycle the wavelength, and it’s inversely proportional to the frequency. Long-wavelength photons are low-frequency, and short-wavelength photons are high frequency. Overall the range of photon frequencies is called the electromagnetic spectrum.
On Earth, photons come from an external source, often the sun, and are reflected off various objects in the world. The photons of a specific color may be absorbed, and thus not seen by an observer, which will make the absorbing object look like the other non-absorbed colors. If there are many absorbed photons or few photons to begin with, an object may just look dark. Our eyes contain molecules capable of detecting photons in the wavelength range 400-700 nanometers and passing that signal to our brains, so this is called the visible wavelength range of the electromagnetic spectrum. But it’s the interaction of photons with the world around us, and then with the sensing apparatus in our eyes, that determines what we see. Other creatures that have sensors for different frequencies of light, or who have more or less than three types of cones, may perceive the color and shape of things to be totally different. And, the visible spectrum is only a small slice of the total range of photon frequencies, as you can see in the image below!
Photons that are slightly lower energy than the visible range are called infrared, and our skin and other warm objects emit photons in the infrared. Night-vision goggles often work using infrared photons, and some kinds of snakes can see infrared. Even lower energy photons have a lot of practical uses: microwave photons can be used to heat material, and radio waves are photons with such low energy that they’re useful for long-range communication! Long wavelength photons are difficult to absorb or alter, so they’re also really useful for astronomy, for example to observe distant planets and stars.
The sun emits photons in the visible range, but it also emits a lot of photons with a slightly higher energy, called ultraviolet or UV. Sunscreen blocks UV frequency photons because they can cause biological tissue to heat up or even burn slightly, and that is sunburn! At even higher frequencies, x-rays are a type of photon that are widely used in biomedical imaging, because they can penetrate tissue and show a basic map of a person’s bones and organs without surgery. And very high energy gamma rays are photons which result from chemical processes in the nuclei of atoms, which can pass through most material. I’ll talk a bit more about x-rays and gamma rays soon, as part of a larger discussion of radiation.
There is a lot more to light than visible light, and the various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are used in many applications. Each wavelength gives us different information about the world, and we can use technology to extend the view that we’re biologically capable of to include x-rays, infrared, and many other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum!