Features of Electromagnetic Waves

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This diagram shows the key features of electromagnetic (light) waves and introduces some of the terms used to describe them.

  • Across the centre is an electromagnetic wave, shown in red.
  • The wave is travelling from left to right.
  • The different features of the wave are shown by labels.
  • At the bottom of the diagram are short definitions of key terms.

Description

Features of Electromagnetic Waves

TRY SOME QUICK QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS TO GET STARTED
Red has the longest wavelength whilst violet has the shortest.
The amplitude of an electromagnetic wave is shown as the distance from the centre line (the still position) to the top of a crest or to the bottom of a corresponding trough.

About the diagram

About the diagram
  • This diagram shows the key features of electromagnetic (light) waves and introduces some of the terms used to describe them.
  • Across the centre is an electromagnetic wave, shown in red.
  • The wave is travelling from left to right.
  • The different features of the wave are shown by labels.
  • At the bottom of the diagram are short definitions of key terms.
Remember that:

Some key terms

Wavelength is a measurement from any point on the path of a wave to the same point on its next oscillation. The measurement is made parallel to the centre-line of the wave.

An electromagnetic wave carries electromagnetic radiation.

In physics and optics, a medium refers to any material (plural: media) through which light or other electromagnetic waves can travel. It’s essentially a substance that acts as a carrier for these waves.

  • Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which travels in the form of waves. These waves consist of oscillating electric and magnetic fields.
  • The properties of the medium, such as its density and composition, influence how light propagates through it.
  • Different mediums can affect the speed, direction, and behaviour of light waves. For instance, light travels slower in water compared to a vacuum.
  • Examples of Mediums:
    • Transparent: Materials like air, glass, and water allow most light to pass through, with minimal absorption or scattering. These are good examples of mediums for light propagation.
    • Translucent: Some materials, like frosted glass or thin paper, partially transmit light. They allow some light to pass through while diffusing or scattering the rest.
    • Opaque: Materials like wood or metal block light completely. They don’t allow any light to travel through them.
  • The permittivity (electrical response) and permeability (magnetic response) of a medium determine how light interacts with it. These properties influence factors like:
    • Refraction: Bending of light as it travels from one medium to another with different densities.
    • Reflection: Bouncing back of light when it encounters a boundary between mediums.
    • Absorption: Light being captured and converted into other forms of energy (like heat) by the medium.
  • In physics and optics, a medium refers to any material through which light or other electromagnetic waves can travel. It’s essentially a substance that acts as a carrier for these waves.
  • Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which travels in the form of waves. These waves consist of oscillating electric and magnetic fields.
  • The properties of the medium, such as its density and composition, influence how light propagates through it.
  • Different mediums can affect the speed, direction, and behaviour of light waves. For instance, light travels slower in water compared to a vacuum.
  • Examples of Mediums:
    • Transparent: Materials like air, glass, and water allow most light to pass through, with minimal absorption or scattering. These are good examples of mediums for light propagation.
    • Translucent: Some materials, like frosted glass or thin paper, partially transmit light. They allow some light to pass through while diffusing or scattering the rest.
    • Opaque: Materials like wood or metal block light completely. They don’t allow any light to travel through them.

The frequency of electromagnetic radiation (light) refers to the number of wave-cycles of an electromagnetic wave that pass a given point in a given amount of time.

The speed (or velocity) of a light wave is a measurement of how far it travels in a certain time.

  • The speed of light is measured in metres per second (m/s).
  • Light travels through a vacuum at 300,000 kilometres per second.
  • The exact speed at which light travels through a vacuum is 299,792,458 metres per second.
  • Light travels through other media at lower speeds.
  • A vacuum is a region of space that contains no matter.
  • Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space by having volume.
  • When discussing electromagnetic radiation the term medium (plural media) is used to refer to anything through which light propagates including empty space and any material that occupies space such as a solid, liquid or gas.
  • In other contexts empty space is not considered to be a medium because it does not contain matter.

A wave-cycle refers to the path of a wave measured from any point through the course of a single oscillation to the same point on the next oscillation.

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