Certain properties of objects or physical processes, such as the frequency of light or sound, the masses of the component parts of a molecule, or even the ideals of a political party, may have a wide variety of values. The distribution of these values, arranged in increasing or decreasing order, is the spectrum of that property. For example, sunlight is made up of many different colors of light, the full spectrum of which are revealed when sunlight is dispersed, as it is in a rainbow. Similarly, the distribution of sounds over a range of frequencies, such as a musical scale, is a sound spectrum. The masses of fragments from an ionized molecule, separated according to their mass-to-charge ratio, constitute a mass spectrum. Opposing political parties are often said to be on opposite ends of the (political) spectrum. The term spectrum is also used to describe the graphical illustration of a spectrum of values. The plural of spectrum is spectra.

The spectrum of light

The spectrum of colors contained in sunlight was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. In fact, the word "spectrum" was coined by Newton to describe the phenomenon he observed. In a report of his discovery published in 1672, Newton described his experiment as follows:

"I procured me a triangular glass prism,... having darkened my chamber and made a small hole in my window shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun's light, I placed my prism at this entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a pleasing divertissement to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby." A diagram of Newton's experiment is illustrated here. Newton divided the spectrum of colors he observed into the familiar sequence of seven fundamental colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (ROYGBIV). He chose to divide the spectrum into seven colors in analogy with the seven fundamental notes of the musical scale. However, both divisions are completely arbitrary as the sound and light spectrum each contain a continuous distribution (and therefore an infinite number) of "colors" and "notes."

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