The Optics of Life:A Biologist's Guide to Light in Nature,by Sonke Johnsen. |

*The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature*, by Sonke Johnsen. I hope to have more to say about this fascinating book when I finish it, but today I want to consider a point made in Chapter 2 (Units and Geometry), which addresses the tricky issue of measuring light intensity as a function of either frequency or wavelength. Johnsen favors using wavelength whenever possible.

However, one critical issue must be discussed before we put frequency away for good. It involves the fact that light spectra are histograms. Suppose you measure the spectrum of daylight, and that the value at 500 nm is 15 photons/cm^{2}/s/nm. That doesn’t mean that there are 15 photons/cm^{2}/s with a wavelength of exactly 500 nm. Instead, it means that, over a 1-nm-wide interval centered on a wavelength of 500 nm, you have 15 photons/cm^{2}/s. The bins in a spectrum don’t have to be 1 nm wide, but they all must have the same width.

Let’s suppose all the bins are 1 nm wide and centered on whole numbers (i.e., one at 400 nm, one at 401 nm, etc.). What happens if we convert these wavelength values to their frequency counterparts? Let’s pick the wavelengths of two neighboring bins and call them λ_{1}and λ_{2}. The corresponding frequencies ν_{1}and ν_{2}are equal to c/λ_{1}and c/λ_{2}, where c is the speed of light. We know that λ_{1}−λ_{2}equals 1 nm, but what does ν_{1}−ν_{2}equal?

ν_{1}−ν_{2}= … = −c/λ_{1}^{2}

…So the width of the frequency bins depends on the wavelengths they correspond to, which means they won’t be equal! In fact, they are quite unequal. Bins at the red end of the spectrum (700 nm) are only about one-third as wide as bins at the blue end (400 nm). This means that a spectrum generated using bins with equal frequency intervals would look different from one with equal wavelength intervals. So which one is correct? Neither or both. The take-home message is that the shape of a spectrum depends on whether you have equal frequency bins or equal wavelength bins.Johnsen goes on to note that the wavelength at which the spectrum is maximum depends on if you use equal frequency or equal wavelength bins. It does not make sense to say that the spectrum of, say, sunlight peaks at a particular wavelength, unless you specify the type of spectrum you are using. Furthermore, you cannot unambiguously say light is “white” (a uniform spectrum). White light using equal wavelength bins is not white using equal frequency bins. Fortunately, if you integrate the spectrum, you get the same value regardless of if you express it in terms of wavelength or frequency.

Russ Hobbie and I discuss this issue in Chapter 14 (Atoms and Light) of the 4th edition of

*Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology*.

Early measurements of the radiation function were done with equipment that made measurements vs. wavelength. It is also possible to measure vs. frequency. To rewrite the radiation function in terms of frequency, let λStudents who prefer visual explanations should see Fig. 14.24, which Russ drew. It is one of my favorite pictures in our book, and provides an illuminating comparison of the two spectra._{1}and λ_{2}= λ_{1}+ dλ be two slightly different wavelengths, with powerW_{λ}(λ,T) dλ emitted per unit surface area at wavelengths between λ_{1}and λ_{2}. The same power must be emitted between frequencies ν_{1}=c/λ_{1}and ν_{2}=c/λ_{2}:

W_{ν}(ν,T) dν =W_{λ}(λ,T) dλ . (14.35)

Since ν =c/λ, dν/dλ = −c/λ^{2}, and

|dν| = +cλ^{2}|dλ| . (14.36)

... This transformation is shown in Fig. 14.24. The amount of power per unit area radiated in the 0.5 μm interval between two of the vertical lines in the graph on the lower right is the area under the curve ofW_{λ}between these lines. The graph on the upper right transforms to the corresponding frequency interval. The radiated power, which is the area under theW_{ν}curve between the corresponding frequency lines on the upper left, is the same. We will see this same transformation again when we deal with x rays. Note that the peaks of the two curves are at different frequencies or wavelengths.

One detail I should mention: why in Eq. 14.36 do we use absolute values to eliminate the minus sign introduced by the derivative dν/dλ? Typically, when you integrate a spectrum, you start from the lower frequency and go to the higher frequency (say, zero to infinity), and you start from the shorter wavelength and go to the longer wavelength (again, zero to infinity). However, zero frequency corresponds to an infinite wavelength, and an infinite frequency corresponds to zero wavelength. So, really one case should be integrated forward (zero to infinity) and the other backwards (infinity to zero). If we keep the convention of always integrating from zero to infinity in both cases, we introduce an extra minus sign, which cancels the minus sign introduced by dν/dλ.

Sometimes it helps to have an elementary example to illustrate these ideas. Therefore, I have developed a new homework problem that introduces an extremely simple spectrum for which you can do the math fairly easily, thereby allowing you to focus on the physical interpretation. Enjoy.

Section 14.7

Problem 23 ½Let W_{ν}(ν) = A ν (ν_{ο}- ν) for ν less thanν_{ο}, andW_{ν}(ν)= 0 otherwise.

(a) PlotW_{ν}(ν)versus ν.

(b) Calculate the frequency corresponding to the maximum ofW_{ν}(ν), called ν_{max}.

(c) Let λ_{ο}= c/ν_{ο}and λ_{max}= c/ν_{max}. Write λ_{max}in terms of λ_{ο}.

(d) Integrate W_{ν}(ν) over all ν to find W_{tot}.

(e) Use Eqs. 14.35 and 14.36 to calculate W_{λ}(λ).

(f) Plot W_{λ}(λ) versus λ.

(g) Calculate the wavelength corresponding to the maximum of W_{λ}(λ), called λ^{*}_{max}, in terms of λ_{ο}.

(h) Compare λ_{max}and λ^{*}_{max}. Are they the same or different? If λ_{ο}is 400 nm, calculate λ_{max}and λ^{*}_{max}? What part of the electromagnetic spectrum is each of these in?

(i) Integrate W_{λ}(λ) over all λ to find W^{*}_{tot}. Compare W_{tot}and W^{*}_{tot}. Are they the same or different?

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