How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 663

Why does an object like metal give off light when it is heated? — ER, Fresno, CA
All objects emit thermal radiation—electromagnetic waves that are associated with the transfer of heat. That's because all objects contain electrically charged particles and whenever electrically charged particles accelerate, they emit electromagnetic waves. Since all objects have thermal energy in them, their electrically charged particles are always undergoing thermal motion and their thermally induced accelerations cause them to emit electromagnetic waves.

At normal temperatures, the electromagnetic waves of thermal radiation are too low in frequency and too long in wavelength for us to see. But when an object's temperature exceeds about 500° C, the object emits a dim glow. By 1800° C, the object emits the yellowish glow of a candle. By 2700° C, the object emits the yellowish-white light of an incandescent bulb. By 5800° C, the object emits the white light of the sun.


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