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Electromagnetic radiation (EM radiation or EMR) is a form of radiant energy, propagating through space via photon wave particles. In a vacuum, it propagates at a characteristic speed, the speed of light, normally in straight lines. EMR is emitted and absorbed by charged particles. As an electromagnetic wave, it has both electric and magnetic field components, which oscillate in a fixed relationship to one another, perpendicular to each other and perpendicular to the direction of energy and wave propagation.

EMR is characterized by the frequency or wavelength of its wave. The electromagnetic spectrum, in order of increasing frequency and decreasing wavelength, consists of radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. The eyes of various organisms sense a somewhat variable but relatively small range of frequencies of EMR called the visible spectrum or light. Higher frequencies correspond to proportionately more energy carried by each photon; for instance, a single gamma ray photon carries far more energy than a single photon of visible light.

Electromagnetic radiation is associated with EM fields that are free to propagate themselves without the continuing influence of the moving charges that produced them, because they have achieved sufficient distance from those charges. Thus, EMR is sometimes referred to as the far field. In this language, the near field refers to EM fields near the charges and current that directly produced them, as for example with simple magnets and static electricity phenomena. In EMR, the magnetic and electric fields are each induced by changes in the other type of field, thus propagating itself as a wave. This close relationship assures that both types of fields in EMR stand in phase and in a fixed ratio of intensity to each other, with maxima and nodes in each found at the same places in space.

EMR carries energy—sometimes called radiant energy—through space continuously away from the source (this is not true of the near-field part of the EM field). EMR also carries both momentum and angular momentum. These properties may all be imparted to matter with which it interacts. EMR is produced from other types of energy when created, and it is converted to other types of energy when it is destroyed. The photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic interaction, and is the basic "unit" or constituent of all forms of EMR. The quantum nature of light becomes more apparent at high frequencies (thus high photon energy). Such photons behave more like particles than lower-frequency photons do.

In classical physics, EMR is considered to be produced when charged particles are accelerated by forces acting on them. Electrons are responsible for emission of most EMR because they have low mass, and therefore are easily accelerated by a variety of mechanisms. Rapidly moving electrons are most sharply accelerated when they encounter a region of force, so they are responsible for producing much of the highest frequency electromagnetic radiation observed in nature. Quantum processes can also produce EMR, such as when atomic nuclei undergo gamma decay, and processes such as neutral pion decay.

The effects of EMR upon biological systems (and also to many other chemical systems, under standard conditions) depends both upon the radiation's power and frequency. For lower frequencies of EMR up to those of visible light (i.e., radio, microwave, infrared), the damage done to cells and also to many ordinary materials under such conditions is determined mainly by heating effects, and thus by the radiation power. By contrast, for higher frequency radiations at ultraviolet frequencies and above (i.e., X-rays and gamma rays) the damage to chemical materials and living cells by EMR is far larger than that done by simple heating, due to the ability of single photons in such high frequency EMR to damage individual molecules chemically.

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