Basic Principles of Spectroscopy Video

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  • 0:01 What Is Spectroscopy?
  • 0:55 Applications of Spectroscopy
  • 2:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn what spectroscopy is, how it works, and what it allows us to learn about the universe. Discover the various applications of spectroscopy and then see how much you learned.

What Is Spectroscopy?

Spectroscopy is the study of the way electromagnetic radiation and matter affect each other. Think of the way light is affected when it hits a glass prism. When white light hits the glass prism, it splits into a rainbow of colors

In general, spectroscopy tends to involve breaking electromagnetic radiation, such as light, into component parts. Or to be more specific, breaking radiation into individual wavelengths, or colors. By doing this you can figure out how intense the light is in those various wavelengths. The devices we use in spectroscopy are usually called spectrometers.

Spectroscopy is important in history, because it paved the way for quantum mechanics. It allowed us to better understand electromagnetic radiation like light. Using these observations, we were able to explain blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, and the structure of the atom.

Applications of Spectroscopy

The ability to understand the intensities of light at different wavelengths has a lot of applications. For example, we can look at the light from the Sun, and by analyzing the wavelengths within it, we can figure out what elements are present in the Sun.

This is possible because of the way hot gases operate. The hot gases contain electrons that absorb the Sun's light energy. This causes them to rise into higher orbits. Like an exhausted child, they eventually use up that energy and fall back down to lower orbits. When they do that, the energy is released as light again. However, since it's released equally in every direction, this light has lower intensity as viewed from Earth than it would have if the electrons had never absorbed it. Each element has different possible orbits for its electrons, and so when we look at the spectrum of light from the Sun, we see darker areas that match the elements present in the Sun. For example, this pattern represents iron:

Spectrum of iron: what you would see if iron was present in the Sun.
Spectrum of iron: what you would see if iron was present in the Sun.

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