Conduction and convection cannot wholly account for some of the phenomena associated with heat transfer. For example, the heat one feels when sitting in front of an open fire cannot be transferred by convection because the air currents are moving toward the fire. It cannot be transferred through conduction because the conductivity of the air is very small, and the cooler currents of air moving toward the fire would more than overcome the transfer of heat outward. Therefore, there must be some way for heat to travel across space other than by conduction and convection.
The existence of another process of heat transfer is still more evident when the heat from the sun is considered. Since conduction and convection take place only through some medium, such as a gas or a liquid, heat from the sun must reach the earth by another method, since space is an almost perfect vacuum. Radiation is the name given to this third method of heat transfer.
The term “radiation” refers to the continual emission of energy from the surface of all bodies. This energy is known as radiant energy. It is in the form of electromagnetic waves, radio waves, or x-rays, which are all alike except for a difference in wave length. These waves travel at the velocity of light and are transmitted through a vacuum more easily than through air because air absorbs some of them. Most forms of energy can be traced back to the energy of sunlight. Sunlight is a form of radiant heat energy that travels through space to reach the earth. These electromagnetic heat waves are absorbed when they come in contact with nontransparent bodies. The result is that the motion of the molecules in the body is increased as indicated by an increase in the temperature of the body.
The differences between conduction, convection, and radiation may now be considered. First, although conduction and convection are extremely slow, radiation takes place at the speed of light. This fact is evident at the time of an eclipse of the sun when the shutting off of the heat from the sun takes place at the same time as the shutting off of the light. Second, radiant heat may pass through a medium without heating it. For example, the air inside a greenhouse may be much warmer than the glass through which the sun’s rays pass. Third, although heat transfer by conduction or convection may travel in roundabout routes, radiant heat always travels in a straight line. For example, radiation can be cut off with a screen placed between the source of heat and the body to be protected.