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Basic Characteristics of Electromagnetic Radiation.

Brief review of EM waves, with a view towards astronomical application.

I. Traveling wave characteristics
E&M radiation consists of transverse waves
with alternating electric and magnetic fields,
and amplitudes given by:

r r

E = E o sin
( x ct )

where: Eo is the electric amplitude, is the

wavelength, and c is the propagation speed.
The wavelength and frequency are related by the
Dispersion relation:

= c, in vacuo.

From notes for MIT Physics 8.02,

Electricity and Magnetism

Wavelengths and frequencies: the EM spectrum

From Wikipedia: electromagnetic spectrum

Atmospheric transmission.

From NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Important wave-like properties:

Waves bend around obstacles.

Every unobstructed point on a wavefront will act a source of

secondary spherical waves. The new wavefront is the surface
tangent to all the secondary spherical waves.
From notes for MIT Physics 8.02, Electricity and Magnetism

e.g., double-slit (Youngs) pattern of interfering waves.

The amplitudes of the overlapping waves add directly, but the brightness or intensity
depends on the square of the sum (where a 1-d. equation is used for simplicity).

I E 1 sin
( x1 ct ) + E 2 sin
(x 2 ct )

II. Light Rays, Geometric Optics.

is often a convenient way to look at EM wave propagation. The rays are
straight normals to local wave fronts, with the following properties.
Reflection: Equal angles of incidence and reflection as measured from a normal to the
surface. This principle allows mirrors to focus light.

Refraction (dispersion): Generally light rays are bent as they pass through the
boundary between two media, or through a medium with a temperature or pressure
gradient. Dispersion results whern the bending (or index of refraction) depends on

Ray optics + Huygens wave principle help us better understand diffraction and
2 slits again x =
x = /2
x = 0


Mirror reflection:

Width of central
diffraction peak:
where d is the
aperature size. This

x = 0
x =

= 5 x 10-7 rad =
0.1 arcsecond for a
1 m diameter
Reverse diffraction pattern

III. Particle Aspect of Electromagnetic Radiation.

In addition to its wave nature, electromagnetic radiation also seems to come
in discrete bundles of energy called photons. The energy of a photon
depends on the frequency of the radiation via Plancks law:

= h = hc/.
This relation connects the wave-particle dual characteristics of EM radiation.

The particle aspect is most relevant at high energies, or very low light levels,
i.e., where there are few photons.

The Doppler Effect

Often explained by analogy to sound or water waves. See squeezed wave
diagram below.
Full special relativistic expression for wavelength of light from a moving source
1/ 2
1+ v /c

o 1 v /c

When v/c << 1, we can approximate this by,

/ o (1+ 12 vc )(1 ( 12 vc )) 1+ v /c,

1 v /c.


Intensity and Flux

To describe the flow (and scattering) of radiation we need the definitions of
intensity and flux, which quantify the idea of a directed, density of radiation.
Monochromatic intensity - is the amount of energy in the frequency interval (,
+) flowing through a unit area, per unit time, into a cone of unit solid angle,
in a given direction.

I =


s m Hz ster

Monochromatic flux - is easier to define! Integrate intensity in solid angle over

a hemisphere. Thus, flux is the energy in frequency range (, +) flowing
through a unit area per unit time, and into any direction (of the hemisphere).

Alternately, the flux received at a detector is the total incoming energy per
unit time, etc., from any angle (though often from a single point source).