If I understand correctly, when a beam of (monochromatic) light passes through media of different refractive indices, its wavelength changes but frequency remains constant.

Why, then, are colours of light and other electromagnetic waves normally quoted in wavelength (e.g. 555 nm) rather than frequency (540 THz) so as to not rely on the assumption that the quoted wavelength is of that corrresponding to a vacuum?

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    $\begingroup$ Probably (1) tradition and (2) wavelengths are what interferometers measure and resonant cavities respond to. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2015 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Expanding on what WetSavannaAnimal said; Such wavelengths are measurable. Such frequencies are not. As you continue along the spectrum, past ultraviolet and into X-rays, even the wavelengths become meaningless, and then we talk about the photon energy. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2015 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ SOmetimes light, or other EM radiation, is parametrized in inverse-cm . It all depends on the standard convention in a given field of study. $\endgroup$ Mar 25, 2015 at 15:13

1 Answer 1


A good question, you are right the frequency remains constant (unless you have Doppler effects due to relative movement, but that's not your question).

For visible light, refraction properties are quite often in question and as such it make sense to speak in terms of wavelength.

As you go even higher in "frequency", physicists start talking in keV and MeV (kilo and Mega electron-volts). This is a unit of energy and represents the energy in a single photon; as frequency goes up, wavelength goes down and the energy of the individual photons goes up. keV and MeV are on the scale of X-rays and Gamma rays respectively. Scientists still might talk about their wavelength, as the wavelengths are so short they are on the scale of atoms and thus interact with them, even ionizing them.

In short, depending on what the experiment is it makes sense to use a certain representation. As awkward as it might seem to jump around between representations, it would be equally awkward to have to stick with one for all cases. Thus we have all three: wavelength, frequency and photon energy

  • $\begingroup$ You're quite right: We use Hz for radio waves, m for infrared/visible/ultraviolet light and eV for X-rays! Maybe it's simply that these fields started out separately before it was realised that they're just different parts of the same spectrum cf. work and heat energy. $\endgroup$
    – Gnubie
    Mar 25, 2015 at 13:59

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