Sir Frederick William Herschel (1738-1822) was born in Hanover, Germany and became well known as both a musician and as an astronomer.
Herschel moved to England in 1757 and, with his sister Caroline, constructed telescopes to survey the night sky. Their work resulted in several catalogues of double stars and nebulae. Herschel is famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, the first new planet found since antiquity.
Herschel made another dramatic discovery in 1800. He wanted to know how much heat passed through the different coloured filters he used to observe sunlight. He noted that filters of different colours seemed to provide different amounts of heat. Herschel thought the colours themselves might be of varying temperatures, so he devised a clever experiment to investigate his hypothesis.
He directed sunlight through a glass prism to create a spectrum (the rainbow formed when light divides into its colours) and then measured the temperature of each colour.
Herschel used three thermometers with blackened bulbs (to better absorb heat). He placed one bulb in a visible colour and the other two beyond the spectrum as control samples.
As he measured the individual temperatures of the violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red light, he noticed that all of the colours had temperatures higher than the controls. Moreover, Herschel found that the temperatures of the colours increased from the violet to the red part of the spectrum.
After noticing this pattern, Herschel decided to measure the temperature just beyond the red portion of the spectrum in a region where no sunlight was visible. To his surprise, he found that this region had the highest temperature of all.
Herschel performed additional experiments on what he called “calorific rays” (derived from the Latin word for heat) beyond the red portion of the spectrum. He found that they were reflected, refracted, absorbed and transmitted like visible light. What Herschel had discovered was a form of light (or radiation) beyond red light, now known as infrared radiation.
Herschel’s experiment was important because it marked the first demonstration that there were types of light that we cannot see with our eyes.
Recent developments in detector technology have led to many useful applications using infrared radiation. Medical infrared technology is used for the non-invasive analysis of body tissues and fluids. Infrared cameras are used in police and security work, as well as in military surveillance.
In fire fighting, infrared cameras are used to locate people and animals caught in dense smoke and for detecting hot spots in forest fires.
Infrared imaging is used to detect heat loss in buildings, to test for stress and faults in mechanical and electrical systems, and to monitor pollution.
Infrared satellites are routinely used to measure ocean temperatures, providing an early warning for El Nino events that usually impact climates worldwide. These satellites also monitor convection within clouds, helping to identify potentially destructive storms.
Airborne and space-based cameras also use infrared light to study vegetation patterns and to study the distribution of rocks, minerals and soil. In archaeology, thermal infrared imaging has been used to discover hundreds of miles of ancient roads and footpaths, providing valuable information about vanished civilizations.
Fascinating discoveries are being made about our universe in the field of infrared astronomy. The universe contains vast amounts of dust, and one way to peer into the obscured cocoons of star formation and the hearts of dusty galaxies is with the penetrating eyes of infrared telescopes.
Our universe is also expanding as a result of the Big Bang, and the visible light emitted by very distant objects has been red-shifted into the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.