Absorption of Light


The illustration shows the colors of visible light. In order of decreasing wavelength, these are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
The colors of visible light do not carry the same amount of energy. Violet has the shortest wavelength and therefore carries the most energy, whereas red has the longest wavelength and carries the least amount of energy. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Light energy initiates the process of photosynthesis when pigments absorb specific wavelengths of visible light. Organic pigments, whether in the human retina or the chloroplast thylakoid, have a narrow range of energy levels that they can absorb. Energy levels lower than those represented by red light are insufficient to raise an orbital electron to a excited (quantum) state. Energy levels higher than those in blue light will physically tear the molecules apart, in a process called bleaching. Our retinal pigments can only “see” (absorb) wavelengths between 700 nm and 400 nm of light, a spectrum that is therefore called visible light. For the same reasons, plants, pigment molecules absorb only light in the wavelength range of 700 nm to 400 nm; plant physiologists refer to this range for plants as photosynthetically active radiation.

The visible light seen by humans as white light actually exists in a rainbow of colors. Certain objects, such as a prism or a drop of water, disperse white light to reveal the colors to the human eye. The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum shows the rainbow of colors, with violet and blue having shorter wavelengths, and therefore higher energy. At the other end of the spectrum toward red, the wavelengths are longer and have lower energy.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


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