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February 25, 2010

Practical Science: Spectroscopy

A few times in the past I have written about how astronomers use light in various ways to learn about objects millions of miles away. Spectroscopy is simply one of the fundamentals of astronomy, but the other day I had someone ask me what the more everyday uses for spectroscopy are. Why is spectroscopy important to the everyday person? As we sat and talked, we came up with more and more ways it's used.

Spectroscopy is the study of light. In astronomy, we use it to find everything from composition, to temperature, to velocity, to extrasolar planets, and the list goes on. But how does this affect us? One of the first things that came to mind was communication. Our cell phones use radio waves to communicate with cell towers. These are the same radio waves we use to study the earliest moments of the universe. The microwaves that we use to cook our food are also part of the radio spectrum.

Healthcare is another area where examples are plentiful. X-rays and CT scans are both used in hospitals on a regular basis. They are also used to help us understand some of the most energetic places in the universe. You can get a sunburn because of ultraviolet light that penetrates our atmosphere. This same form of light gives us insight into the structure of the clouds of Venus.

Gamma rays are the highest energy form of light and are used by geologists to find minerals or other materials under the earths surface. Infrared, a much lower energy form of light, is used by weather satellites to help us know the forecast tomorrow.

All of these technologies are things we have come to rely on, and none of them would be possible without this obscure part of physics.