electromagnetic radiation, energy radiated in the form of a wave as a result of the motion of electric charges. A moving charge gives rise to a magnetic field, and if the motion is changing (accelerated), then the magnetic field varies and in turn produces an electric field. These interacting electric and magnetic fields are at right angles to one another and also to the direction of propagation of the energy. Thus, an electromagnetic wave is a transverse wave. If the direction of the electric field is constant, the wave is said to be polarized (see polarization of light). Electromagnetic radiation does not require a material medium and can travel through a vacuum. The theory of electromagnetic radiation was developed by James Clerk Maxwell and published in 1865. He showed that the speed of propagation of electromagnetic radiation should be identical with that of light, about 186,000 mi (300,000 km) per sec. Subsequent experiments by Heinrich Hertz verified Maxwell's prediction through the discovery of radio waves, also known as hertzian waves. Light is a type of electromagnetic radiation, occupying only a small portion of the possible spectrum of this energy. The various types of electromagnetic radiation differ only in wavelength and frequency; they are alike in all other respects. The possible sources of electromagnetic radiation are directly related to wavelength: long radio waves are produced by large antennas such as those used by broadcasting stations; much shorter visible light waves are produced by the motions of charges within atoms; the shortest waves, those of gamma radiation, result from changes within the nucleus of the atom. In order of decreasing wavelength and increasing frequency, various types of electromagnetic radiation include: electric waves, radio waves (including AM, FM, TV, and shortwaves), microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X rays, and gamma radiation. According to the quantum theory, light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation may at times exhibit properties like those of particles in their interaction with matter. (Conversely, particles sometimes exhibit wavelike properties.) The individual quantum of electromagnetic radiation is known as the photon and is symbolized by the Greek letter gamma. Quantum effects are most pronounced for the higher frequencies, such as gamma rays, and are usually negligible for radio waves at the long-wavelength, low-frequency end of the spectrum.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.