What is light?

What is light? — KB, Winnipeg, MB

Light consists of electromagnetic waves. An electromagnetic wave is a self-sustaining disturbance in the electric and magnetic fields that can exist even in empty space. You have probably seen two electrically charged objects push or pull on one another, such as when a sock clings to a shirt as you pull the two from the clothes dryer. You have probably also seen two magnetically poled objects push or pull on one another, such as when a magnet pulls itself toward a refrigerator door. These electric and magnetic forces are mediated by electric and magnetic fields respectively and, while those fields certainly exist in the space between the sock and shirt or between the magnet and refrigerator, they can also exist all by themselves. In an electromagnetic wave, the electric field creates the magnetic field and the magnetic field creates the electric field so that these two fields go on creating one another indefinitely as the wave travels through space at an enormous speed—the speed of light. Electromagnetic waves are distinguished by their frequencies or wavelengths, characteristics that are familiar to anyone who has watched water waves approaching the beach. But only a certain group of electromagnetic waves are visible to our eyes—those with frequencies between about 4.0*1014 cycles per second and 7.5*1014 cycles per second (wavelengths between about 750 nanometers and 400 nanometers). Outside of this range are infrared light at the low frequency end and ultraviolet light at the high frequency end.

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