Hunting up the Ghosts of Elements

If you’ve seen the flash of yellow-orange flames when a pot boils over on a gas stove, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the ghost of an atom.  The color is part of the atom’s spectrum.

In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton used the Latin word for ghost, spectrum, to describe the bands of colors he saw when light shone through a prism. One hundred and fifty years later, Joseph von Fraunhofer noticed he could see bright lines instead of the bands of colors when looking at certain flames through a prism.  He went on to develop an instrument to measure these spectral lines, called a spectroscope, and used it to catalog the lines seen in the sun’s light and in the light from other stars.

Illustration of a dispersive prism decomposing white light into the colours of the spectrum, as discovered by Newton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration of a dispersive prism decomposing white light into the colours of the spectrum, as discovered by Newton. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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