I would like to know the relation between penetrating ability and the frequency of a wave. For example, gamma waves have high frequency and high penetrating power: intuitively I imagined this as attacking a target rapidly in quick succession and managing to get through.

But the penetrating ability is also a feature of low frequency waves - the usual telecommunications spectrum. What is the intuition behind this? Are there other factors like the field which play a dominating factor here?

Edit: The question is in reference to the permeable zone indicated in this figure.


2 Answers 2


That's a complicated question because different frequency waves are absorbed/scattered by different mechanisms and in different media. Have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_attenuation_coefficient as this contains some introductory information. Actually that article describes X-Ray absorption in some detail but glosses over light and radio waves.

You specifically mention radio and low frequency waves and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_propagation gives some discussion of these. Low fequency EM is generally too low energy to be absorbed by exciting molecular transitions and instead it's absorbed by interaction with the electrons in whatever it's passing though. generally speaking the more conducting the media the faster the radio/VLF waves are absorbed.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi John, my question was specifically in reference to [this link] (fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/…). There is a permeable region in the low frequency area. $\endgroup$
    – Bravo
    Mar 9, 2012 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Shyam see my answer. The confusion is between air and solid objects, which react to EMR differently. $\endgroup$ Mar 9, 2012 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, now I see it, John. Thanks. By the way, is this Mass-attenuation coefficient thingy empirical/experimental only? Hasn't research been done to quantify this behaviour for different EMR and different objects? $\endgroup$
    – Bravo
    Mar 9, 2012 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't my area of Physics (I'm a colloid scientist) so I'd have to do a literature survey, aka a Google of arxiv.org, to see what has been done. I suspect it's the sort of thing that's easy to estimate theoretically but hard to calculate with any precision. For real applications I imagine the attentuation would always be measured. $\endgroup$ Mar 9, 2012 at 16:55

This is more of an addendum to @JohnRennie's answer, outlining your confusion a bit more clearly:

Normally, the gamma-rays-more-PP is for metals etcetera. These have free electrons and the electrons can absorb pretty much anything. Gamma rays, being more energetic, preserve themselves much better than X-rays, radio waves, etc. Concrete is a composite, so I don't know exactly what goes on inside it, but it's probably something similar.

On the other hand, gas molecules in the air can only absorb fixed amounts of energy (above the ionization energy, they can absorb anything)? Since $E=h\nu$, fixed energy $\implies$ fixed frequency. These fixed frequencies are mostly in the UV/X-ray/gamma ray range for air. There are enough of these fixed frequencies (due to orbitals, etc.) that they basically black out most of the X-ray spectrum. Aside from that, the reaction $3O_2 \overset{h\nu}{\rightleftharpoons} 2O_3$ absorbs UV light in the ozone layer.

On the other hand, radio waves aren't strong enough to be absorbed by an atom, they are probably below the quantum of energy for the atomic system. So they pass through space unhampered, and since they diffract easily, we get the extra benefit of non-directional nature. They can bend around large metal objects as well due to diffraction.


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