Last updated
Analysis of white light by dispersing it with a prism is an example of spectroscopy. Light dispersion of a mercury-vapor lamp with a flint glass prism IPNrdeg0125.jpg
Analysis of white light by dispersing it with a prism is an example of spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy /spɛkˈtrɒskəpi/ is the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. [1] [2] Historically, spectroscopy originated through the study of visible light dispersed according to its wavelength, by a prism. Later the concept was expanded greatly to include any interaction with radiative energy as a function of its wavelength or frequency, predominantly in the electromagnetic spectrum, though matter waves and acoustic waves can also be considered forms of radiative energy; recently, with tremendous difficulty, even gravitational waves have been associated with a spectral signature in the context of LIGO and laser interferometry. Spectroscopic data are often represented by an emission spectrum, a plot of the response of interest as a function of wavelength or frequency.

Matter substance that has rest mass and volume, or several other definitions

In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. All everyday objects that can be touched are ultimately composed of atoms, which are made up of interacting subatomic particles, and in everyday as well as scientific usage, "matter" generally includes atoms and anything made up of them, and any particles that act as if they have both rest mass and volume. However it does not include massless particles such as photons, or other energy phenomena or waves such as light or sound. Matter exists in various states. These include classical everyday phases such as solid, liquid, and gas – for example water exists as ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam – but other states are possible, including plasma, Bose–Einstein condensates, fermionic condensates, and quark–gluon plasma.

Radiation waves or particles propagating through space or through a medium, carrying energy

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

Visible spectrum portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye

The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called visible light or simply light. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 380 to 740 nanometers. In terms of frequency, this corresponds to a band in the vicinity of 430–770 THz.


Spectroscopy, primarily in the electromagnetic spectrum, is a fundamental exploratory tool in the fields of physics, chemistry, and astronomy, allowing the composition, physical structure and electronic structure of matter to be investigated at atomic scale, molecular scale, macro scale, and over astronomical distances. Important applications arise from biomedical spectroscopy in the areas of tissue analysis and medical imaging.

Physics study of matter and its motion, along with related concepts such as energy and force

Physics is the natural science that studies matter and its motion and behavior through space and time and that studies the related entities of energy and force. Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.

Chemistry is the scientific discipline involved with elements and compounds composed of atoms, molecules and ions: their composition, structure, properties, behavior and the changes they undergo during a reaction with other substances.

Astronomy natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.


Spectroscopy and spectrography are terms used to refer to the measurement of radiation intensity as a function of wavelength and are often used to describe experimental spectroscopic methods. Spectral measurement devices are referred to as spectrometers, spectrophotometers, spectrographs or spectral analyzers.

Spectrograph instrument or apparatus for photographing or otherwise recording spectra

A spectrograph is an instrument that separates light by its wavelengths and records this data. A spectrograph typically has a multi-channel detector system or camera that detects and records the spectrum of light.

Daily observations of color can be related to spectroscopy. Neon lighting is a direct application of atomic spectroscopy. Neon and other noble gases have characteristic emission frequencies (colors). Neon lamps use collision of electrons with the gas to excite these emissions. Inks, dyes and paints include chemical compounds selected for their spectral characteristics in order to generate specific colors and hues. A commonly encountered molecular spectrum is that of nitrogen dioxide. Gaseous nitrogen dioxide has a characteristic red absorption feature, and this gives air polluted with nitrogen dioxide a reddish-brown color. Rayleigh scattering is a spectroscopic scattering phenomenon that accounts for the color of the sky.

Color Characteristic of human visual perception

Color, or colour, is the characteristic of human visual perception described through color categories, with names such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. This perception of color derives from the stimulation of cone cells in the human eye by electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum. Color categories and physical specifications of color are associated with objects through the wavelength of the light that is reflected from them. This reflection is governed by the object's physical properties such as light absorption, emission spectra, etc.

Neon lighting

Neon lighting consists of brightly glowing, electrified glass tubes or bulbs that contain rarefied neon or other gases. Neon lights are a type of cold cathode gas-discharge light. A neon tube is a sealed glass tube with a metal electrode at each end, filled with one of a number of gases at low pressure. A high potential of several thousand volts applied to the electrodes ionizes the gas in the tube, causing it to emit colored light. The color of the light depends on the gas in the tube. Neon lights were named for neon, a noble gas which gives off a popular orange light, but other gases and chemicals are used to produce other colors, such as hydrogen (red), helium (yellow), carbon dioxide (white), and mercury (blue). Neon tubes can be fabricated in curving artistic shapes, to form letters or pictures. They are mainly used to make dramatic, multicolored glowing signage for advertising, called neon signs, which were popular from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Atomic spectroscopy is the study of the electromagnetic radiation absorbed and emitted by atoms. Since unique elements have characteristic (signature) spectra, atomic spectroscopy, specifically the electromagnetic spectrum or mass spectrum, is applied for determination of elemental compositions. It can be divided by atomization source or by the type of spectroscopy used. In the latter case, the main division is between optical and mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry generally gives significantly better analytical performance, but is also significantly more complex. This complexity translates into higher purchase costs, higher operational costs, more operator training, and a greater number of components that can potentially fail. Because optical spectroscopy is often less expensive and has performance adequate for many tasks, it is far more common Atomic absorption spectrometers are one of the most commonly sold and used analytical devices.

Spectroscopic studies were central to the development of quantum mechanics and included Max Planck's explanation of blackbody radiation, Albert Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect and Niels Bohr's explanation of atomic structure and spectra. Spectroscopy is used in physical and analytical chemistry because atoms and molecules have unique spectra. As a result, these spectra can be used to detect, identify and quantify information about the atoms and molecules. Spectroscopy is also used in astronomy and remote sensing on Earth. Most research telescopes have spectrographs. The measured spectra are used to determine the chemical composition and physical properties of astronomical objects (such as their temperature and velocity).

Quantum mechanics branch of physics dealing with phenomena at scales of the order of the Planck constant

Quantum mechanics, including quantum field theory, is a fundamental theory in physics which describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles.

Max Planck German theoretical physicist

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck, ForMemRS was a German theoretical physicist whose discovery of energy quanta won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.

Albert Einstein German-born physicist and developer of the theory of relativity

Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. His work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. He is best known to the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, which has been dubbed "the world's most famous equation". He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect", a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory.


One of the central concepts in spectroscopy is a resonance and its corresponding resonant frequency. Resonances were first characterized in mechanical systems such as pendulums. Mechanical systems that vibrate or oscillate will experience large amplitude oscillations when they are driven at their resonant frequency. A plot of amplitude vs. excitation frequency will have a peak centered at the resonance frequency. This plot is one type of spectrum, with the peak often referred to as a spectral line, and most spectral lines have a similar appearance.

Resonance phenomenon in which a vibrating system or external force drives another system to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies

In mechanical systems, resonance is a phenomenon that occurs when the frequency at which a force is periodically applied is equal or nearly equal to one of the natural frequencies of the system on which it acts. This causes the system to oscillate with larger amplitude than when the force is applied at other frequencies.

Spectral line optical phenomenon

A spectral line is a dark or bright line in an otherwise uniform and continuous spectrum, resulting from emission or absorption of light in a narrow frequency range, compared with the nearby frequencies. Spectral lines are often used to identify atoms and molecules. These "fingerprints" can be compared to the previously collected "fingerprints" of atoms and molecules, and are thus used to identify the atomic and molecular components of stars and planets, which would otherwise be impossible.

In quantum mechanical systems, the analogous resonance is a coupling of two quantum mechanical stationary states of one system, such as an atom, via an oscillatory source of energy such as a photon. The coupling of the two states is strongest when the energy of the source matches the energy difference between the two states. The energy of a photon is related to its frequency by where is Planck's constant, and so a spectrum of the system response vs. photon frequency will peak at the resonant frequency or energy. Particles such as electrons and neutrons have a comparable relationship, the de Broglie relations, between their kinetic energy and their wavelength and frequency and therefore can also excite resonant interactions.

Spectra of atoms and molecules often consist of a series of spectral lines, each one representing a resonance between two different quantum states. The explanation of these series, and the spectral patterns associated with them, were one of the experimental enigmas that drove the development and acceptance of quantum mechanics. The hydrogen spectral series in particular was first successfully explained by the Rutherford-Bohr quantum model of the hydrogen atom. In some cases spectral lines are well separated and distinguishable, but spectral lines can also overlap and appear to be a single transition if the density of energy states is high enough. Named series of lines include the principal, sharp, diffuse and fundamental series.

Classification of methods

A huge diffraction grating at the heart of the ultra-precise ESPRESSO spectrograph. A Taste of ESPRESSO.jpg
A huge diffraction grating at the heart of the ultra-precise ESPRESSO spectrograph.

Spectroscopy is a sufficiently broad field that many sub-disciplines exist, each with numerous implementations of specific spectroscopic techniques. The various implementations and techniques can be classified in several ways.

Type of radiative energy

The types of spectroscopy are distinguished by the type of radiative energy involved in the interaction. In many applications, the spectrum is determined by measuring changes in the intensity or frequency of this energy. The types of radiative energy studied include:

Nature of the interaction

The types of spectroscopy also can be distinguished by the nature of the interaction between the energy and the material. These interactions include: [1]

Type of material

Spectroscopic studies are designed so that the radiant energy interacts with specific types of matter.


Atomic spectroscopy was the first application of spectroscopy developed. Atomic absorption spectroscopy and atomic emission spectroscopy involve visible and ultraviolet light. These absorptions and emissions, often referred to as atomic spectral lines, are due to electronic transitions of outer shell electrons as they rise and fall from one electron orbit to another. Atoms also have distinct x-ray spectra that are attributable to the excitation of inner shell electrons to excited states.

Atoms of different elements have distinct spectra and therefore atomic spectroscopy allows for the identification and quantitation of a sample's elemental composition. After inventing the spectroscope, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff discovered new elements by observing their emission spectra. Atomic absorption lines are observed in the solar spectrum and referred to as Fraunhofer lines after their discoverer. A comprehensive explanation of the hydrogen spectrum was an early success of quantum mechanics and explained the Lamb shift observed in the hydrogen spectrum, which further led to the development of quantum electrodynamics.

Modern implementations of atomic spectroscopy for studying visible and ultraviolet transitions include flame emission spectroscopy, inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy, glow discharge spectroscopy, microwave induced plasma spectroscopy, and spark or arc emission spectroscopy. Techniques for studying x-ray spectra include X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence.


The combination of atoms into molecules leads to the creation of unique types of energetic states and therefore unique spectra of the transitions between these states. Molecular spectra can be obtained due to electron spin states (electron paramagnetic resonance), molecular rotations, molecular vibration, and electronic states. Rotations are collective motions of the atomic nuclei and typically lead to spectra in the microwave and millimeter-wave spectral regions. Rotational spectroscopy and microwave spectroscopy are synonymous. Vibrations are relative motions of the atomic nuclei and are studied by both infrared and Raman spectroscopy. Electronic excitations are studied using visible and ultraviolet spectroscopy as well as fluorescence spectroscopy.

Studies in molecular spectroscopy led to the development of the first maser and contributed to the subsequent development of the laser.

Crystals and extended materials

The combination of atoms or molecules into crystals or other extended forms leads to the creation of additional energetic states. These states are numerous and therefore have a high density of states. This high density often makes the spectra weaker and less distinct, i.e., broader. For instance, blackbody radiation is due to the thermal motions of atoms and molecules within a material. Acoustic and mechanical responses are due to collective motions as well. Pure crystals, though, can have distinct spectral transitions, and the crystal arrangement also has an effect on the observed molecular spectra. The regular lattice structure of crystals also scatters x-rays, electrons or neutrons allowing for crystallographic studies.


Nuclei also have distinct energy states that are widely separated and lead to gamma ray spectra. Distinct nuclear spin states can have their energy separated by a magnetic field, and this allows for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Other types

Other types of spectroscopy are distinguished by specific applications or implementations:


UVES is a high-resolution spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope. UVES on UT2-KUEYEN.jpg
UVES is a high-resolution spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope.


The history of spectroscopy began with Isaac Newton's optics experiments (1666–1672). Newton applied the word "spectrum" to describe the rainbow of colors that combine to form white light and that are revealed when the white light is passed through a prism. During the early 1800s, Joseph von Fraunhofer made experimental advances with dispersive spectrometers that enabled spectroscopy to become a more precise and quantitative scientific technique. Since then, spectroscopy has played and continues to play a significant role in chemistry, physics, and astronomy.

See also


  1. 1 2 Crouch, Stanley; Skoog, Douglas A. (2007). Principles of instrumental analysis. Australia: Thomson Brooks/Cole. ISBN   978-0-495-01201-6.
  2. Herrmann, R.; C. Onkelinx (1986). "Quantities and units in clinical chemistry: Nebulizer and flame properties in flame emission and absorption spectrometry (Recommendations 1986)". Pure and Applied Chemistry. 58 (12): 1737–1742. doi:10.1351/pac198658121737.
  3. "A Taste of ESPRESSO" . Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  4. Mariani, Z.; Strong, K.; Wolff, M.; Rowe, P.; Walden, V.; Fogal, P. F.; Duck, T.; Lesins, G.; Turner, D. S.; Cox, C.; Eloranta, E.; Drummond, J. R.; Roy, C.; Turner, D. D.; Hudak, D.; Lindenmaier, I. A. (2012). "Infrared measurements in the Arctic using two Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometers". Atmos. Meas. Tech. 5 (2): 329–344. Bibcode:2012AMT.....5..329M. doi:10.5194/amt-5-329-2012.
  5. Evans, C. L.; Xie, X. S. (2008). "Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Scattering Microscopy: Chemical Imaging for Biology and Medicine". Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry . 1: 883–909. Bibcode:2008ARAC....1..883E. doi:10.1146/annurev.anchem.1.031207.112754. PMID   20636101.
  6. W. Demtröder, Laser Spectroscopy, 3rd Ed. (Springer, 2003).
  7. Brian Orr; J. G. Haub; Y. He; R. T. White (2016). "Spectroscopic Applications of Pulsed Tunable Optical Parametric Oscillators". In F. J. Duarte. Tunable Laser Applications (3rd ed.). Boca Raton: CRC Press. pp. 17–142. ISBN   978-1-4822-6106-6.
  8. Murray, Kermit K.; Boyd, Robert K.; Eberlin, Marcos N.; Langley, G. John; Li, Liang; Naito, Yasuhide (2013). "Definitions of terms relating to mass spectrometry (IUPAC Recommendations 2013)". Pure and Applied Chemistry . 85 (7): 1. doi:10.1351/PAC-REC-06-04-06. ISSN   0033-4545.
  9. N. A. Sinitsyn; Y. V. Pershin (2016). "The theory of spin noise spectroscopy: a review". Reports on Progress in Physics . 79 (10): 106501. arXiv: 1603.06858 . Bibcode:2016RPPh...79j6501S. doi:10.1088/0034-4885/79/10/106501. PMID   27615689.
  10. Solli, D. R.; Chou, J.; Jalali, B. (2008). "Amplified wavelength–time transformation for real-time spectroscopy". Nature Photonics . 2 (1): 48–51. Bibcode:2008NaPho...2...48S. doi:10.1038/nphoton.2007.253.
  11. Chou, Jason; Solli, Daniel R.; Jalali, Bahram (2008). "Real-time spectroscopy with subgigahertz resolution using amplified dispersive Fourier transformation". Applied Physics Letters . 92 (11): 111102. arXiv: 0803.1654 . Bibcode:2008ApPhL..92k1102C. doi:10.1063/1.2896652.
  12. "Media advisory: Press Conference to Announce Major Result from Brazilian Astronomers". ESO Announcement. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  13. Wang, Xiping; Wacker, James P. (2006). "Using NIR Spectroscopy to Predict Weathered Wood Exposure Times" (PDF). WTCE 2006 – 9th World Conference on Timber Engineering.
  14. 1 2 Andrew Fraknoi; David Morrison (October 13, 2016). "OpenStax Astronomy".

Related Research Articles

Fourier-transform spectroscopy is a measurement technique whereby spectra are collected based on measurements of the coherence of a radiative source, using time-domain or space-domain measurements of the electromagnetic radiation or other type of radiation. It can be applied to a variety of types of spectroscopy including optical spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI), mass spectrometry and electron spin resonance spectroscopy. There are several methods for measuring the temporal coherence of the light, including the continuous wave Michelson or Fourier-transform spectrometer and the pulsed Fourier-transform spectrograph.

Atomic, molecular, and optical physics (AMO) is the study of matter-matter and light-matter interactions; at the scale of one or a few atoms and energy scales around several electron volts. The three areas are closely interrelated. AMO theory includes classical, semi-classical and quantum treatments. Typically, the theory and applications of emission, absorption, scattering of electromagnetic radiation (light) from excited atoms and molecules, analysis of spectroscopy, generation of lasers and masers, and the optical properties of matter in general, fall into these categories.

Raman spectroscopy spectroscopic technique used to observe vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system

Raman spectroscopy ; named after Indian physicist Sir C. V. Raman) is a spectroscopic technique used to observe vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system. Raman spectroscopy is commonly used in chemistry to provide a structural fingerprint by which molecules can be identified.

Laser cooling variety of techniques where atomic samples are cooled via interacting with lasers

Laser cooling refers to a number of techniques in which atomic and molecular samples are cooled down to near absolute zero. Laser cooling techniques rely on the fact that when an object absorbs and re-emits a photon its momentum changes. For an ensemble of particles, their temperature is proportional to the variance in their velocity. That is, more homogeneous velocities among particles corresponds to a lower temperature. Laser cooling techniques combine atomic spectroscopy with the aforementioned mechanical effect of light to compress the velocity distribution of an ensemble of particles, thereby cooling the particles.

Emission spectrum Frequencies of light emitted by atoms or chemical compounds

The emission spectrum of a chemical element or chemical compound is the spectrum of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation emitted due to an atom or molecule making a transition from a high energy state to a lower energy state. The photon energy of the emitted photon is equal to the energy difference between the two states. There are many possible electron transitions for each atom, and each transition has a specific energy difference. This collection of different transitions, leading to different radiated wavelengths, make up an emission spectrum. Each element's emission spectrum is unique. Therefore, spectroscopy can be used to identify the elements in matter of unknown composition. Similarly, the emission spectra of molecules can be used in chemical analysis of substances.

Absorption spectroscopy spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation

Absorption spectroscopy refers to spectroscopic techniques that measure the absorption of radiation, as a function of frequency or wavelength, due to its interaction with a sample. The sample absorbs energy, i.e., photons, from the radiating field. The intensity of the absorption varies as a function of frequency, and this variation is the absorption spectrum. Absorption spectroscopy is performed across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Plasma diagnostics are a pool of methods, instruments, and experimental techniques used to measure properties of a plasma, such as plasma components' density, distribution function over energy (temperature), their spatial profiles and dynamics, which enable to derive plasma parameters.

Fluorescence spectroscopy type of electromagnetic spectroscopy

Fluorescence spectroscopy is a type of electromagnetic spectroscopy that analyzes fluorescence from a sample. It involves using a beam of light, usually ultraviolet light, that excites the electrons in molecules of certain compounds and causes them to emit light; typically, but not necessarily, visible light. A complementary technique is absorption spectroscopy. In the special case of single molecule fluorescence spectroscopy, intensity fluctuations from the emitted light are measured from either single fluorophores, or pairs of fluorophores.

In physics and physical chemistry, time-resolved spectroscopy is the study of dynamic processes in materials or chemical compounds by means of spectroscopic techniques. Most often, processes are studied after the illumination of a material occurs, but in principle, the technique can be applied to any process that leads to a change in properties of a material. With the help of pulsed lasers, it is possible to study processes that occur on time scales as short as 10−16 seconds.

Raman scattering

Raman scattering or the Raman effect {{IPAc-en|ˈ|raman| is the inelastic scattering of a photon by molecules which are excited to higher energy levels. The effect was discovered in 1928 by C. V. Raman and his student K. S. Krishnan in liquids, and independently by Grigory Landsberg and Leonid Mandelstam in crystals. The effect had been predicted theoretically by Adolf Smekal in 1923.

Resonance Raman spectroscopy is a Raman spectroscopy technique in which the incident photon energy is close in energy to an electronic transition of a compound or material under examination. The frequency coincidence can lead to greatly enhanced intensity of the Raman scattering, which facilitates the study of chemical compounds present at low concentrations.

Absorption band

According to quantum mechanics, atoms and molecules can only hold certain defined quantities of energy, or exist in specific states. When such quanta of electromagnetic radiation are emitted or absorbed by an atom or molecule, the energy of the radiation changes the state of the atom or molecule from an initial state to a final state. An absorption band is a range of wavelengths, frequencies or energies in the electromagnetic spectrum which are characteristic of a particular transition from initial to final state in a substance.

X-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES), also known as near edge X-ray absorption fine structure (NEXAFS), is a type of absorption spectroscopy that indicates the features in the X-ray absorption spectra (XAS) of condensed matter due to the photoabsorption cross section for electronic transitions from an atomic core level to final states in the energy region of 50–100 eV above the selected atomic core level ionization energy, where the wavelength of the photoelectron is larger than the interatomic distance between the absorbing atom and its first neighbour atoms.

Chemical imaging is the analytical capability to create a visual image of components distribution from simultaneous measurement of spectra and spatial, time information. Hyperspectral imaging measures contiguous spectral bands, as opposed to multispectral imaging which measures spaced spectral bands.

Electromagnetic absorption by water

The absorption of electromagnetic radiation by water depends on the state of the water.

Photoelectrochemical processes are processes in photoelectrochemistry; they usually involve transforming light into other forms of energy. These processes apply to photochemistry, optically pumped lasers, sensitized solar cells, luminescence, and photochromism.

History of spectroscopy

The history of spectroscopy began in the 17th century. New designs in optics, specifically prisms, enabled systematic observations of the solar spectrum. Isaac Newton first applied the word spectrum to describe the rainbow of colors that combine to form white light. During the early 1800s, Joseph von Fraunhofer conducted experiments with dispersive spectrometers that enabled spectroscopy to become a more precise and quantitative scientific technique. Since then, spectroscopy has played and continues to play a significant role in chemistry, physics and astronomy.