The Universe in the Classroom

No. 35 - Summer 1996

© 1996, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112.

There's More to Light Than Meets the Eye

by Debra Fischer University of California, Santa Cruz
and George Musser, Astronomical Society of the Pacific

X-ray Visible Infrared Radio
Bionic eyes. If our eyes could see in different wavelength bands, this is what the Sun would look like. From left to right, these images show the Sun at x-ray, visible, infrared, and radio wavelengths. Photos courtesy of Yohkoh, BBSO, NSO, and Nobeyama Radio Observatory.

If you want to reduce your class size, try sending a note home with your students asking for parental permission to conduct classroom experiments with electromagnetic radiation. It is probably the "radiation" part that would induce fear. The word has long been associated with lead suits and red buttons, accidents and bombs whose emitted radiation is hazardous.

But not all radiation is dangerous. Visible light, crucial to photosynthesis, is a type of radiation. So what is this phenomenon that both gives and takes life?

Over the past 100 years, there has been a revolution in our ability to understand light and its sibling forms of radiation. At the heart of this revolution is the recognition that light travels as a wave. It sounds simple enough, but this basic realization has rippled throughout our society. It has unleashed whole new technologies, from radio transmitters to lasers. It has infused new scientific theories that, in turn, have led to other technologies, including electronics. And it has helped to push astronomy from an intriguing pursuit, akin to stamp collecting, to an analytical science.

The information riding on waves of light tell us what stars are and, ultimately, what we are. Light reveals how far away stars are, how fast they move, what chemical elements they contain, how massive they are, and whether they have planets. One day, maybe soon, the faint light from a planet may bring the news that we are not alone.

For teachers, one of best things about light is that it is cheap. Light experiments are easy to carry out in the classroom and can be adapted to a broad range of student abilities (see activity). Students can make rainbows. They can learn why mixing red, green, and blue pigment makes black paint, whereas mixing red, green, and blue light makes white light. They can learn not only about light, but also about the methods of science.

Catch the Wave
Making Waves
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
In Flux
Humpty-Dumpty White Light
In the Dark
Inside an Atom
Dreams of Fields
Activity: Making a Rainbow

Catch the Wave

Our peephole to the universe was once the visible window ­ the relatively small range of light wavelengths to which human eyes are sensitive. In the last 50 years, new instruments, such as radio telescopes and ultraviolet detectors, have become our seeing-eye dogs outside that window. Now we are experiencing the once-invisible phenomenon of the universe: the birth of stars, the munchings of cannibalistic galaxies, the afterglow of the Big Bang. The broad range of invisible and visible wavelengths through which we now view the universe has that descriptive, if awkward, 10-syllable name: electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation is one of the many forms that energy can take. As the name implies, this energy has two components: electric and magnetic. The components themselves are invisible; they exist in the form of electric and magnetic fields (see Dreams of Fields).

Like runners in a three-legged race, the two fields are locked together. Together they urge each other on, radiating, or traveling, through space. Like runners, the fields vary in strength. They weaken, then regain strength, then weaken again, and so on. When the electric field is strongest, so is the magnetic. When the electric field sags, so does the magnetic. When you combine these two basic ideas ­ motion and oscillation ­ you have the very definition of a wave. There are other kinds of waves, such as sound waves and water waves, but they involve vibrations in solids and fluids, rather than in electric and magnetic fields. The oscillation of the fields happens at a regular rate, known as the frequency. By the time the fields go from strong to weak and back to strong, the wave has moved a certain distance, known as the wavelength.
The many hues of light. Our eyes are sensitive to just a small portion of the total grandeur of electromagnetic radiation. Only in the past century have surrogate eyes, such as radio antennas and ultraviolet sensors, let us see the invisible wavelengths. As the wavelength increases, frequency decreases -- and so does the energy.

Red light, blue light, infrared light, ultraviolet light, radio waves, x-rays ­ they all consist of moving, oscillating electric and magnetic fields. We often think of radio waves as something we listen to. But that's just because the radio receiver translates the radio waves into sound waves, just as a television translates radio waves into pictures. The radio waves themselves are basically the same as light.

Although these forms of radiation are all electromagnetic, they do interact with matter in quite different ways. What makes some forms of radiation dangerous, others beneficial, and the rest indifferent?

Compare the wavelength of a radio wave with that of an x-ray. The wavelength uniquely identifies the type of radiation. Radio waves are between a millimeter and hundreds of kilometers long ­ that's why TV and radio antennas are the size they are. X-rays, by contrast, are about a billionth of a meter long. If you could magically squeeze an electromagnetic wavelength from 1 meter to 1 billionth of a meter, you would presto-chango have turned a radio wave into an x-ray. For visible light, the wavelength identifies the color of the light. If you could compress the wavelength of red light roughly in half, the light would turn blue.

So the question really is: What makes the length of the wave so critical? How can it be responsible for the differences in the way radiation interacts with matter?

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