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Chemistry – The Nature of Light Or Electromagnetic Radiation

In the 1700s there were two theories about the nature of light. One theory, proposed by Sir Isaac Newton, proposed that light consists of a stream of tiny particles called corpuscles. Another theory, proposed by Christiaan Huygens, stated that light consists of waves. Who was right? Well most of the evidence pointed to waves, but there was more to the story.

In the 1800s most scientists accepted the wave theory of light due to the work of Thomas Young and James Clerk Maxwell. Both men were able to show that light bends, and Maxwell developed four famous formulas that describe the motion of light as a wave. Thus, wave theory became the dominant theory.

However, in the early 1900s the work of Max Planck, Arthur Compton, and Albert Einstein showed that light also has particle properties. Today we accept a concept of wave-particle duality of light.

Light as a Wave

When you light a fire in a fireplace you see and feel electromagnetic radiation. Fire emits light (visible radiation) and heat (thermal radiation). Both types of radiation exist in the form of electromagnetic waves and each has particles of energy. Therefore, we need to understand the properties of particles and waves.

Phenomena such as colors in soap bubbles, oil film and rain are best explained when light is considered as a wave. So, let’s look at the components of a wave.

An electromagnetic wave consists of an electric wave and a magnetic wave traveling at right angles to each other. The distance between adjacent maxima of an electromagnetic wave is the wavelength (λ) and is half the distance from a maximum to a minimum in magnitude. The number of cycles (maximum) that pass through a point in a given time is defined as frequency (ν) and hertz (Hz) as cycles per second.

The Spectrum

Unlike other types of waves, electromagnetic waves do not need a medium to travel and electromagnetic waves can travel through a gap of 3.00 x 108 m/s, the “speed of light”. It is known that the speed of any wave is the product of wavelength and frequency, and since the speed of light is constant, wavelength (λ) and frequency (ν) must be inversely proportional.

  • The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency
  • The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency

The wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are called the electromagnetic spectrum and range from very short wavelengths (cosmic rays) to very long wavelengths (thermal waves). Visible electromagnetic radiation (white light) is a very small region of the electromagnetic spectrum that spans from 750 nm to 350 nm.

Visible light can be split into its wavelengths by passing it through a prism. A prism bends (refracts) light as it passes through it and produces a complete range of colors (wavelengths) called the continuous spectrum.

All light can be separated into wavelengths using a spectrometer, but not all light produces a continuous spectrum. Many types of radiation are missing certain wavelengths and create a line spectrum. A spectrum is a spectrum with bright lines appearing only at certain wavelengths.

Light as a Particle

Although the wave theory of light seemed to answer many questions about light, there were some phenomena that could not be explained by this idea. Phenomena such as the photoelectric effect and the Compton Effect indicate the possibility that light is a particle.

Later in 1900, a German physicist, Max Planck, proposed that light is not a continuous flow of energy, but consists of small packets of energy (quanta) that are used as a whole (quantized).

Planck formulated a formula to support his quantum theory with data he gathered from studying the frequency and energy of different wavelengths. By comparing frequencies and energies of wavelengths, Planck not only realized that they are directly proportional, but he was able to calculate the value of the proportionality constant (Planck’s Equation).

Planck’s theory was not well accepted, however, until a young Swiss patent agent successfully used quantum theory to explain the photoelectric effect.

Photoelectric effect

The photoelectric effect was a phenomenon known a long time ago. It was first described by Thomas Edison and is sometimes called the Edison effect in his honor. This effect occurs when light shines on the surface of a pure metal and electrons are removed from the surface.

In 1905, Albert Einstein used quantum theory to help explain the photoelectric effect and show that electromagnetic radiation also has particle properties. Starting with his equation E = mc2 and then converting Planck’s equation to energy, Einstein was able to show that a quantum of energy has mass. In fact, the higher the energy, the greater its mass and the more particle-like it was. That’s why Einstein called the quantum photon.

Wave-Particle Duality

Quanta, now called photons, give light its particle properties. A photon is a special “wave” of energy that is directly proportional to its frequency, inversely proportional to its wavelength, and can only be absorbed or emitted (quantized) in whole numbers. When the energy is high the wavelength is short and the photon behaves as a particle, but when the energy is low the wavelengths are long and the photon behaves as a wave.

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