infrared radiation, electromagnetic radiation having a wavelength in the range from c.75 × 10 - 6 cm to c.100,000 × 10 - 6 cm (0.000075–0.1 cm). Infrared rays thus occupy that part of the electromagnetic spectrum with a frequency less than that of visible light and greater than that of most radio waves, although there is some overlap. The name infrared means "below the red," i.e., beyond the red, or lower-frequency (longer wavelength), end of the visible spectrum. Infrared radiation is thermal, or heat, radiation. It was first discovered in 1800 by Sir William Herschel, who was attempting to determine the part of the visible spectrum with the minimum associated heat in connection with astronomical observations he was making. In 1847, A. H. L. Fizeau and J. B. L. Foucault showed that infrared radiation has the same properties as visible light, being reflected, refracted, and capable of forming an interference pattern. Infrared radiation is typically produced by objects whose temperature is above 10°K. There are many applications of infrared radiation. A number of these are analogous to similar uses of visible light. Thus, the spectrum of a substance in the infrared range can be used in chemical analysis much as the visible spectrum is used. Radiation at discrete wavelengths in the infrared range is characteristic of many molecules. The temperature of a distant object can also be determined by analysis of the infrared radiation from the object. Radiometers operating in the infrared range serve as the basis for many instruments, including heat-seeking devices in missiles and devices for spotting and photographing persons and objects in the dark or in fog. Medical uses of infrared radiation range from the simple heat lamp to the technique of thermal imaging, or thermography. A thermograph of a person can show areas of the body where the temperature is much higher or lower than normal, thus indicating some medical problem. Thermography has also been used in industry and other applications. Some lasers produce infrared radiation. A recent development has been the expansion of research in infrared astronomy; infrared sensors are sent aloft in balloons, rockets, and satellites to study the infrared radiation reaching the earth from other parts of the solar system and beyond.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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