Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Electromagnetic Waves

The most important consequence of induction is the existence of electromagnetic waves. Whereas a gravitational wave would consist of nothing more than a rippling of gravitational fields, the principle of induction tells us that there can be no purely electrical or purely magnetic waves. Instead, we have waves in which there are both electric and magnetic fields, such as the sinusoidal one shown in the figure. Maxwell proved that such waves were a direct consequence of his equations, and derived their properties mathematically. The derivation would be beyond the mathematical level of this book, so we will just state the results.

A sinusoidal electromagnetic wave has the geometry shown in the figure above. The E and B fields are perpendicular to the direction of motion, and are also perpendicular to each other. If you look along the direction of motion of the wave, the B vector is always 90 degrees clockwise from the E vector. The magnitudes of the two fields are related by the equation |E|=c|B|.

How is an electromagnetic wave created? It could be emitted, for example, by an electron orbiting an atom or currents going back and forth in a transmitting antenna. In general any accelerating charge will create an electromagnetic wave, although only a current that varies sinusoidally with time will create a sinusoidal wave. Once created, the wave spreads out through space without any need for charges or currents along the way to keep it going. As the electric field oscillates back and forth, it induces the magnetic field, and the oscillating magnetic field in turn creates the electric field. The whole wave pattern propagates through empty space at a velocity c=3.0x108 m/s, which is related to the constants k and μo by


Two electromagnetic waves traveling in the same direction through space can differ by having their electric and magnetic fields in different directions, a property of the wave called its polarization.

Light is an electromagnetic wave

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

The first two humans to know what starlight was.

Once Maxwell had derived the existence of electromagnetic waves, he became certain that they were the same phenomenon as light. Both are transverse waves (i.e. the vibration is perpendicular to the direction the wave is moving), and the velocity is the same. He is said to have gone for a walk with his wife one night and told her that she was the only other person in the world who knew what starlight really was.

Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894)

Heinrich Hertz (for whom the unit of frequency is named) verified Maxwell's ideas experimentally. Hertz was the first to succeed in producing, detecting, and studying electromagnetic waves in detail using antennas and electric circuits. To produce the waves, he had to make electric currents oscillate very rapidly in a circuit. In fact, there was really no hope of making the current reverse directions at the frequencies of 1015 Hz pos sessed by visible light. The fastest electrical oscillations he could produce were 109 Hz, which would give a wavelength of about 30 cm. He succeeded in showing that, just like light, the waves he produced were polariz able, and could be reflected and refracted (i.e. bent, as by a lens), and he built devices such as parabolic mirrors that worked according to the same optical principles as those employing light. Hertz's results were convincing evidence that light and electromagnetic waves were one and the same.

The electromagnetic spectrum

Today, electromagnetic waves with frequencies in the range employed by Hertz are known as radio waves. Any remaining doubts that the "Hert zian waves," as they were then called, were the same type of wave as light waves were soon dispelled by experiments in the whole range of frequencies in between, as well as the frequencies outside that range. In analogy to the spectrum of visible light, we speak of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, of which the visible spectrum is one segment. The terminology for the various parts of the spectrum is worth memo rizing, and is most easily learned by recognizing the logical relationships between the wavelengths and the properties of the waves with which you are already familiar. Radio waves have wavelengths that are comparable to the size of a radio antenna, i.e. meters to tens of meters. Microwaves were named that because they have much shorter wavelengths than radio waves; when food heats unevenly in a microwave oven, the small distances between neighboring hot and cold spots is half of one wavelength of the standing wave the oven creates. The infrared, visible, and ultraviolet obviously have much shorter wavelengths, because otherwise the wave nature of light would have been as obvious to humans as the wave nature of ocean waves. To remember that ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays all lie on the short- wavelength side of visible, recall that all three of these can cause cancer. (As we'll discuss later in the course, there is a basic physical reason why the cancer-causing disruption of DNA can only be caused by very short- wavelength electromagnetic waves. Contrary to popular belief, microwaves cannot cause cancer, which is why we have microwave ovens and not x-ray ovens!)

Last Update: 2010-11-11