1. How does an EM wave carry energy?

  2. What is an EM wave? (Is it a collection of photons?)

  3. What are the mechanics behind it?

I am an engineer and I've been taught to think of light (light is my area of expertise, by the way) as an EM wave and what that means is I have been told that it carries energy via "oscillations" (which are more like a series of alternating fields coming one after another in a quick succession and the quicker is the succession in which the fields come the more energetic the wave is) and "amplitude" (which is the energy of fields per se) and that by changing the amplitude you can change the intensity of a light-wave. I was also taught that photons are energy carriers in light-waves. Well, does any of this make any sense to any of you here?


closed as too broad by DanielSank, ACuriousMind, Kyle Kanos, John Rennie, Jim Aug 11 '15 at 13:51

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  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean "how does it carry energy"? How does any other wave "carry energy"? Do you want the classical or the quantum mechanical description? $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Aug 10 '15 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ I would love to hear both if possible. $\endgroup$ – user74809 Aug 10 '15 at 23:47

Classical waves through empty space is the easiest.

There is actually energy at every place where there is an electric and/or magnetic field. The amount of energy per unit volume is $\epsilon_0E^2/2$ for energy stored in the electric field and $B^2/2\mu_0$ for energy stored in the magnetic field.

So when the amplitude is larger both the electric and the magnetic fields are larger and so there is more energy stored in every bit of volume that has energy which is everywhere the fields aren't zero, which is almost everywhere.

As the wave translates across space in the direction it travels the regions of higher energy slide into a new location, much like a baseball player sliding in a base. This transports the energy from where it used to be into a new location, the location where the field is now large (instead of the location where the field used to be large).

What about all this talk about frequency? That has nothing to do with the energy stored in a given volume.

Quantum mechanically energy is transfered from the collective field to an object in discrete multiples of $\hbar\omega.$ Since a larger amplitude means more energy that means more multiples of $\hbar\omega$ can be delivered. And if the frequency is higher then each little bit of $\hbar\omega$ packs more punch. For quantum mechanics you also have to take into account the quantum nature of the thing getting the energy.

Quantum mechanically it is harder to say anything, even energy, is located somewhere. You can only talk about the dynamics of interactions. It is more complicated by the fact that there isn't really a classical electric or magnetic field in quantum mechanics.

  • $\begingroup$ I have been taught in a Russian University that an EM wave, in its basic form, is a series of constantly shifting (alternating) electric and magnetic fields and that electric and magnetic fields stretch themselves out in all detections across space at the same net speed until they are absorbed/reflected/refracted by "environment", and that in a second after the emission of a typical EM wave in vacuum it shall have covered the radius of 299 792 458 meters and that is propagating the way is it under the action of gravity, man or "environment"... were they wrong on this one? $\endgroup$ – user74809 Aug 11 '15 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ @user74809 They do not alternate magnetic then electric then magnetic again. The electric and magnetic fields are strong together and that high density of energy actual moves through space, and that is how energy gets around. Otherwise, it doesn't sound like it contradicts anything I said, but I could be misreading your comment. Sorry. $\endgroup$ – Timaeus Aug 11 '15 at 4:42

This wiki article has relevant material.

1) How does an EM wave carry energy?

The EM wave is an ensemble of photons, so the photons are carrying the energy ( see answer to 3) . In the classical electrodynamics formulation of Maxwells equations it is the electric and magnetic field propagating in space that is carrying the energy.

2) What is an EM wave? (Is it a collection of photons?)

An electromagnetic wave is an ensemble of photons

3) What are the mechanics behind it?

The underlying framework of all nature is quantum mechanical. Quantum mechanics has equations whose solutions predict probabilities of interactions taking place, and not trajectories as is the case in classical mechanics and electrodynamics.

From this quantum mechanical underlying level of nature classical mechanics and classical electrodynamics emerges smoothly mathematically, although not simply. The quantum mechanical equation that predicts the behavior of photons is a version of Maxwell's equation where the derivatives have become operators. Thus the wavefunction ( probability of location of the photon is the square of this) carries not only energy information which will build up the amplitude of the emergent classical wave, but also phases that will built up the phases of the emergent classical wave.

If one reduces the amplitude of an electromagnetic wave to one photon at a time one can measure the energy of the single photon, h*nu . The behavior of the ensemble of photons will build up the classical E and B fields with their energy and phases as predicted by Maxwell's classical equations. (an analogue in classical physics is how thermodynamics emerges from statistical mechanics)

This article may help, also this previous answer of mine.


The main point is the understanding how light or more generally electromagnetic radiation is emitted. Electrons, loosing energy, emit photons. Protons and neutrons can do this too. Switching on an electric bulb, in a current carrying wire electrons gain kinetic energy and loose a lot of this energy by getting negatively accelerated (braked) by the atomistic structure of the wire. The emission of photons is the only way the generate EM radiation.

Now, what are radio waves? To produce them one has to let through an antenna rod an alternating current. The generator do this, he accelerate the electrons in the wire periodically. It was explored, that accelerated electrons produce a magnetic field. And that a changing magnetic field produce a changing electric field. Each of the photons, emitted in aligned direction by the accelerated electrons in the antenna rod are oscillations of an electric and an magnetic field.

From the oscillation of radio waves one can conclude about the behavior of single photons. Photons are propagating in space by converting electric in magnetic field and magnetic in electric field and so on. More explanations in my elaborations here.

  • $\begingroup$ A link to a page that shows electric and magnetic fields not in phase might not be the best introduction to someone new to electromagnetic waves, especially if they weren't specifically asking how electromagnetic waves interact with matter and media. $\endgroup$ – Timaeus Aug 11 '15 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Timaeus In your answer you say "The amount of energy per unit volume is ϵ0E2/2 for energy stored in the electric field and B2/2μ0 for energy stored in the magnetic field." If both fields oscillate in phase the energy of the EM field varies between max and zero. This is ok for radio waves but seems to be impossible for single photons. $\endgroup$ – HolgerFiedler Aug 11 '15 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Timaeus Please read this answer too. $\endgroup$ – HolgerFiedler Aug 11 '15 at 11:02

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