The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Radiation is something most people have heard a few times in their lifetime, and it’s usually accompanied by the dangers it can cause. Many parents will lather your visible skin with sunblock if you’re going to be outside in the sun for a long period of time to protect you from the sun’s rays, which can damage the skin with a sunburn or skin cancer.  

However, radiation actually takes many forms, not all of which are dangerous. Radiation is a form of energy that can be found all around us. In fact, the human body itself emits a form of radiation, which is emitted constantly as ambient heat, also known as body heat.

The Electromagnetic (EM) Spectrum is made up of seven main sections:

  • Radio waves are emitted by radio stations and picked up by a radio.
  • Microwave radiation is used in radar technology and is commonly used to cook food in a short amount of time, such as in a microwave.
  • Infrared light is emitted by our bodies and other objects as heat but is not visible to the human eye.
  • Visible light is light energy that we can see with our eyes such as a light bulb or a firefly, as well as the stars in the night sky.
  • Ultraviolet radiation is given off by the sun, and because it comes from a hot source, it can cause damage to the skin if overexposed to its rays.
  • X-Rays are used in various devices to see a better picture of the internal structure of an object.
  • Gamma rays are used to get a deeper image, similar to x-rays except it allows for a more precise image to be collected.

Radiation is broken down into frequency, wavelength, and energy.

  • Frequency is measured in cycles per second, or Hertz.
  • Wavelength is measured in meters.
  • Energy is measured in electron volts.

The primary difference between the opposite ends of the electromagnetic spectrum is measured by wavelength, frequency, and energy amount given off. The wavelength of radiation given off by radio waves is longer, while the wavelength given off by gamma rays are much shorter. The frequency of radiation given off by radio waves is lower, while the frequency given off by gamma rays are much higher. The energy given off by radio waves is lower, while the energy given off by gamma rays are much higher.

When looking at the electromagnetic spectrum, it is important to note that some areas of the spectrum give off radiation in the form of light, also known as photons. These photons, which is a stream of mass-less particles that are each traveling in a wave-like pattern at the speed of light. Photons are not in radio waves or microwaves, but they are found in the infrared light through gamma rays.

The EM Spectrum ranges from radio waves, which are the lowest energy and longest wavelength, to gamma rays, which are the highest energy and shortest wavelength. Visible light, which is what the human body can see freely, lies in the middle of the EM Spectrum. Radio waves are made up of the lowest amount of energy, while gamma rays are made up of the highest amount of energy.

Three types of infrared (IR) radiation

  • Near infrared radiation (NIR)
  • Mid infrared radiation (MIR)
  • Far infrared radiation (FIR)

Among the infrared radiation types, only NIR transfers in the form of heat energy, while FIR transfers in the form of photons, not heat, which is what makes FIR unique, differentiating itself from conventional NIR technology that relies on heat energy. FIR is read by the thermoreceptors within human skin cells as radiant heat.

Far Infrared vs Infrared

The term infrared radiation refers to all three types of infrared radiation, while far infrared radiation is a subset form of infrared radiation, which is most commonly used for biological effects. Thanks to the advancements in science and technology, it is possible to utilize this radiation as a form of treatment with certain medical conditions and ailments. The radiation is used to stimulate cells and tissues because it is safe and effective to use on human (and animal) cells and tissues. Unlike higher forms of radiation, far infrared photons don’t permanently alter or damage the cells. That is why the therapeutic uses of FIR radiation are becoming more promising in the medical community.

Non-ionizing vs Ionizing

As mentioned, the EM Spectrum is made up of different degrees of radiation, and some of that radiation can result in biological changes if overexposed to them.

Non-ionizing forms of radiation consist of non-thermal, thermal, and some of the optical spectrum within the EM Spectrum. The lower the energy is, the less dangerous it becomes to the body. For example, radiation within the optical view of the spectrum, like a heat lamp, can be therapeutic. While a tanning bed can also be therapeutic, overexposure can become dangerous. With a heat lamp giving off infrared radiation, the human eye can see the energy in a form of light and feel it in a form of heat, the wavelength only penetrates into the top most layer of the body and excites the electrons, which is referred to as non-ionizing. Meanwhile, a tanning bed can offer similar therapeutic benefits, although the energy is higher, it can become more dangerous, and is known as ionizing. Due to the fact that a tanning bed uses ultraviolet radiation to mimic that of the sun, if overexposed to this form of radiation the body will become damaged or burned. Ultraviolet rays through gamma rays are unable to be seen by the human eye, however they can damage DNA and other cells within the body.  This end of the EM Spectrum is the most commonly known form of radiation which most are taught to fear in the way that too much sun can damage your cells, resulting in skin cancer, or that the amount of higher radiation from a medical scan (ranging from x-ray to PET scan or MRI) can be dangerous on the cells of the body.

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