In December 2021, NASA launched its newest flagship telescope. Named after the administration’s second director, James Webb observes the universe in infrared (IR) wavelengths. However, this form of radiation isn’t the only way we peer through space.
Due to their positions just outside of our vision, we’ve had a great interest in the relationship between infrared vs ultraviolet. Their qualities introduce everything from heating to visibility to communication. Continue reading for the important aspects of each one and how we use them on the daily.
Infrared vs Ultraviolet: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Discovered by||William Herschel||Johann Wilhelm Ritter|
|Frequency||300Ghz – 400THz||800THz – 30PHz|
|Wavelength||780nm – 1mm||400 – 180nm|
|Energy Level||1.2meV – 1.7eV||3 – 124eV|
|Applications||Night vision, tracking, heating and cooling, communications, meteorology, astronomy||Photography, electrical, analytics, material science, astronomy|
|Possible Hazards||Damage to the eyes||Damage to the eyes and skin, malignant melanoma|
Infrared vs Ultraviolet: What’s the Difference?
Let’s have a look at what sets these two types of electromagnetic radiation apart.
In 1800, the German-born British astronomer William Herschel discovered heat sources from outside the visible range of light. Experimenting with what would inspire the spectrometer, the scientist was able to test the temperature of each color of light.
When the temperature continued to rise beyond red light, Herschel suggested that the energy came from radiation rather than brightness. As the astronomer’s experiments support, IR radiation comes from objects that produce heat.
This is a result of several actions that can cause it to activate and create friction. This doesn’t require a hot temperature to emit radiation; any object that releases heat of minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit or higher emits infrared light.
Part of the low-frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum, infrared light finds its place between microwaves and visible light. Researchers usually measure this non-ionizing radiation using its wavelengths or frequency due to its low energy levels.
When considering its wavelength, IR typically ranges from 780nm – 1mm. This correlates with a frequency range of 300Ghz – 400THz and an energy level of 1.2meV – 1.7eV. For an idea of how large infrared can range, its average wavelength measure the diameter of a human hair.
Due to its range entering a designation involving heat sources, IR radiation has several uses. Usually, this type of energy is used in night vision goggles, which use sensors that paint images based on different wavelengths.
However, you don’t need to participate in covert operations to use infrared regularly. Common household objects such as toaster ovens and television remotes use IR in their functions.
While infrared is usually related to heat, it’s not likely that it’ll hurt you. Although some objects as hot as 3,200 degrees will produce NIR waves, they won’t burn.
Take care not to expose your eyes to those waves; high-frequency IR radiation can cause damage to retinas and even blindness in some cases. Overall, this type of radiation is relatively safe with regular amounts of exposure.
Following the discovery of infrared rays on the opposite side of the visible light spectrum, German chemist Johann Wilhelm Ritter worked with the polarities in the forces of nature. Working with silver chloride paper, Ritter discovered that its makeup reacted faster with the energy beyond violet light than it did with violet itself.
The chemist called these frequencies deoxidizing rays for their ability to change the chemical balance in materials. Entering this range of frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum, UV light requires enough electrical activation that it can ionize atoms.
When electric discharges pass through gasses, they produce low-frequency radiation. This is where we start to see the beginnings of harmful rays.
On the EM spectrum, ultraviolet light finds itself located between the violet range of visible light and X-rays. Although we start to see increases in energy at this range, scientists still choose to measure this type of radiation using wavelengths and frequencies.
UV light often includes wavelengths of 400 to 180nm. This relates to a frequency range of 800THz – 30PHz (petahertz) and an energy range of 3 – 124eV. Compared to infrared light, these wavelengths are much smaller; the average size of ultraviolet light measures the diameter of the rhinovirus.
The UV range finds itself in a strange transitional phase; its energy levels are high enough to ionize, but its wavelengths aren’t small enough to provide precise imaging. Thus, UV radiation sees limited use.
Its applications tend to range from fluorescent light sources to delicate forms of skin treatment. However, its use in the Hubble Telescope is a major cause for the resurgence of space exploration.
While it features less prominent ionizing properties when compared to X-rays or gamma rays, UV can still have adverse effects on the human eye and skin. Exposure to significant amounts of UV-B or UV-C can result in sunburns, collagen damage, and some forms of skin cancer. Most notably, 92% of malignant melanoma has a direct relationship with ultraviolet radiation.
Infrared vs Ultraviolet: 5 Must-Know Facts
- Both infrared and ultraviolet (UV) border the visible light range of the electromagnetic spectrum; there are trace frequencies of each that we can see.
- IR light is commonly associated with heat sources.
- UV radiation is highly dangerous to our skin in high doses, but over 95% of it attenuates in the atmosphere.
- The James Webb Space Telescope observes the universe in near-IR, which allows it to peer through space dust.
- Ultraviolet radiation is so powerful that it can alter the composition of atoms.
Infrared vs Ultraviolet: Which One Is Better?
When comparing infrared vs ultraviolet, they seem equal at first glance; both forms of radiation have a spot adjacent to the visible light spectrum, which gives them a more natural setting in daily life. Additionally, their non-ionizing vs ionizing properties each come with benefits and weaknesses.
Where infrared starts to look better is in its applications. Because it’s closely related to heat properties, the radiation finds more uses in thermal imaging, heating and cooling, and more. And because IR is one of the faster non-ionizing portions of the EM range, we tend to use it in a variety of household tools.
UV continues to prove less appealing when we consider its hazards. Because its energy levels introduce the ability to alter the composition of atoms, UV has the potential to cause real damage to the eyes and skin. At frequencies of this range, skin cells can even start to break down, causing cancer.
Infrared vs Ultraviolet: Further Reading
As close as they are to the slim range of light that we can see, it’s important to know the difference between infrared vs ultraviolet. Knowing how each of these frequencies plays a role in our lives helps us understand how we should use them. For more applications of the electromagnetic spectrum, check out the articles below.
- Starlink vs 5G: Which Is Better? – Looking for the next big thing in wireless communication? Check out these two internet connections.
- The James Webb Space Telescope: Complete History, Specs, and More – NASA’s latest telescope uses the IR range to view the universe. Here’s how it does it.
- Bluetooth vs. Infrared: What’s the Difference? – What’s the best way to wirelessly connect your devices? Read this article to find out.
- What are EMFs (Electric and Magnetic Fields)? Are They Safe? – With cell phones playing a more prevalent role in our lives, you should understand how their electromagnetic fields affect you.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©wacomka/Shutterstock.com.