The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Color


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The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from high-frequency gamma rays to low-frequency radio waves. Visible light is the relatively small range of electromagnetic frequencies that can be sensed by the human eye. On the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light falls between ultraviolet and infrared light. (credit: modification of work by Johannes Ahlmann)

Visible light is just one form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), a type of energy that is all around us. Other forms of EMR include microwaves, X-rays, and radio waves, among others. The different types of EMR fall on the electromagnetic spectrum, which is defined in terms of wavelength and frequency. The spectrum of visible light occupies a relatively small range of frequencies between infrared and ultraviolet light.

Whereas wavelength represents the distance between adjacent peaks of a light wave, frequency, in a simplified definition, represents the rate of oscillation. Waves with higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths and, therefore, have more oscillations per unit time than lower-frequency waves. Higher-frequency waves also contain more energy than lower-frequency waves. This energy is delivered as elementary particles called photons. Higher-frequency waves deliver more energetic photons than lower-frequency waves.

Photons with different energies interact differently with the retina. In the spectrum of visible light, each color corresponds to a particular frequency and wavelength.The lowest frequency of visible light appears as the color red, whereas the highest appears as the color violet. When the retina receives visible light of many different frequencies, we perceive this as white light. However, white light can be separated into its component colors using refraction. If we pass white light through a prism, different colors will be refracted in different directions, creating a rainbow-like spectrum on a screen behind the prism. This separation of colors is called dispersion, and it occurs because, for a given material, the refractive index is different for different frequencies of light.

Certain materials can refract nonvisible forms of EMR and, in effect, transform them into visible light. Certain fluorescent dyes, for instance, absorb ultraviolet or blue light and then use the energy to emit photons of a different color, giving off light rather than simply vibrating. This occurs because the energy absorption causes electrons to jump to higher energy states, after which they then almost immediately fall back down to their ground states, emitting specific amounts of energy as photons. Not all of the energy is emitted in a given photon, so the emitted photons will be of lower energy and, thus, of lower frequency than the absorbed ones. Thus, a dye such as Texas red may be excited by blue light, but emit red light; or a dye such as fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC) may absorb (invisible) highenergy ultraviolet light and emit green light. In some materials, the photons may be emitted following a delay after absorption; in this case, the process is called phosphorescence. Glow-in-the-dark plastic works by using phosphorescent material.

The fluorescent dyes absorbed by these bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cells emit brilliant colors when excited by ultraviolet light under a fluorescence microscope. Various cell structures absorb different dyes. The nuclei are stained blue with 4’,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI); microtubles are marked green by an antibody bound to FITC; and actin filaments are labeled red with phalloidin bound to tetramethylrhodamine (TRITC). (credit: National Institutes of Health)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: