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7 Types of Electromagnetic Waves

The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum encompasses the range of possible EM wave frequencies. EM waves are made up of
photons that travel through space until interacting with matter, at which point some waves are absorbed and others are
reflected; though EM waves are classified as seven different forms, they are actually all manifestations of the same
phenomenon. The type of EM waves emitted by an object depends on the object's temperature.
Radio Waves
Radio waves are the lowest-frequency waves in the EM spectrum. Radio waves can be
used to carry other signals to receivers that subsequently translate these signals into
usable information. Many objects, both natural and man-made, emit radio waves.
Anything that emits heat emits radiation across the entire spectrum, but in different
amounts. Stars, planets and other cosmic bodies emit radio waves. Radio and
television stations and cellphone companies all produce radio waves that carry signals
to be received by the antennae in your television, radio or cellphone.

Microwaves are the second-lowest frequency waves in the EM spectrum. Whereas
radio waves can be up to a mile in length, microwaves measure from a few
centimeters up to a foot. Due to their higher frequency, microwaves can carry
information through obstacles that interfere with radio waves such as clouds, smoke
and rain. Microwaves are used for radar, landline phone calls and the transmission of
computer data. Microwave remnants of the "Big Bang" radiate from all directions
throughout the universe.

Infrared Waves
Infrared waves are in the lower-middle range of frequencies in the EM spectrum,
between microwaves and visible light. The size of infrared waves ranges from a few
millimeters down to microscopic lengths. The longer-wavelength infrared waves
produce heat and include radiation emitted by fire, the sun and other heat-producing
objects; shorter-wavelength infrared rays do not produce much heat and are used in
remote controls and imaging technologies.

Visible Light Rays

Visible light waves are radiation that you can see with your naked eye. The different
frequencies of visible light are experienced by people as the colors of the rainbow.
The frequencies move from the lower wavelengths, detected as reds, up to the
higher visible wavelengths, detected as violet hues. The most noticeable natural
source of visible light is, of course, the sun. Objects are perceived as different colors
based on which wavelengths of light an object absorbs and which it reflects.

Ultraviolet Waves
Ultraviolet waves have even shorter wavelengths than visible light. UV waves are the
cause of sunburn and can cause cancer in living organisms. High-temperature
processes emit UV rays; these can be detected throughout the universe from every
star in the sky. Detecting UV waves assists astronomers, for example, in learning
about the structure of galaxies.

X-ray Waves
X-rays are extremely high-energy waves with wavelengths between 0.03 and 3
nanometers -- not much longer than an atom. X-rays are emitted by sources
producing very high temperatures like the sun's corona, which is much hotter than
the surface of the sun. Natural sources of x-rays include enormously energetic cosmic
phenomena such as pulsars, supernovae and black holes. X-rays are commonly used
in imaging technology to view bone structures within the body.

Gamma Rays
Gamma waves are the highest-frequency EM waves, and are emitted by only the
most energetic cosmic objects such pulsars, neutron stars, supernova and black
holes. Terrestrial sources include lightning, nuclear explosions and radioactive decay.
Gamma wave wavelengths are measured on the subatomic level and can actually
pass through the empty space within an atom. Gamma rays can destroy living cells;
fortunately, the Earth's atmosphere absorbs any gamma rays that reach the planet.
Who discovered the electromagnetic spectrum?

Up until the 19th century, scientists thought electricity and magnetism were completely
separate things. Then, following a series of amazing experiments, it became clear that they
were linked together very closely. Electricity could cause magnetism and vice-versa! Around
1819/1820, a Danish physicist called Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851) showed that an
electric wire would create a pattern of magnetism around it. About a decade later, English
chemist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) proved that the opposite could happen too—you could
use magnetism to generate electricity—and that led him to develop the electric motors and
electricity generators that now power our world.

Photo: James Clerk Maxwell: the father of electromagnetism.

Thanks to the pioneering work of people like this, another great scientist, James Clerk Maxwell (1831– 1879) was able to
come up with a single theory that explained both electricity and magnetism. Maxwell summed up everything people had
discovered in four simple equations to produce a superb theory of electromagnetism, which he published in 1873. He
realized that electromagnetism could travel in the form of waves, at the speed of light, and concluded that light itself
had to be a kind of electromagnetic wave. About a decade after Maxwell's death, a brilliant German physicist named
Heinrich Hertz (1857–1894) became the first person to produce electromagnetic waves in a laboratory. That piece of
work led to the development of radio, television, and—much more recently—things like wireless Internet.

How an electromagnetic wave travels: If we

could peer inside a light ray (or other
electromagnetic wave), this is what we'd
see: an electrical wave vibrating in one
direction (blue in this case, and vibrating up-
and-down) and a magnetic wave vibrating at
right angles to it (red in this case, and
vibrating from side to side). The two waves
vibrate in perfect step, at right angles to the
direction they're traveling in. This diagram
shows us something scientists only really
understood in the 19th century: electricity
and magnetism are equal partners that
work together closely at all times.

The main types of electromagnetic radiation

frequency type of electromagnetic radiation wavelength

highest gamma radiation shortest



visible light



lowest radio waves longest

All types of electromagnetic radiation:

 are transverse waves
 travel at the same speed in a vacuum - empty space.
The speed of electromagnetic radiation in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s. This is approximately three hundred
million metres per second - nearly nine hundred thousand times faster than sound, which is why you see a
flash of lightning before you hear the thunder.