Energy Transferred by Radiation
Energy and Thermal Physics

Infra-red radiation from the human body

Practical Activity for 14-16 PRACTICAL PHYISCS


This experiment shows that electromagnetic radiation in the infrared region is emitted from warm objects such as the human body.

Apparatus and Materials

  • Mirror galvanometer, with sensitivity of about 20 mm per μA
  • X-band microwave detector with its horn

Health & Safety and Technical Notes

Do not use any source of power on the diode detector. Do not use a Gunn diode source.

Read our standard health & safety guidance

Do not use a transmitter. Do not apply any source of power.

Note: even under good conditions the galvanometer, with a sensitivity in μV, will have a deflection of only about 5% fsd.

David Sumner says: "I used a diode detector, Unilab 045.674, which comes complete with a horn. This detector has enormous bandwidth. Any similar X-band receiver can be used."


  1. Set up the apparatus
  2. Cover the horn window with metal foil. Zero the galvanometer and carefully switch it to the most sensitive range.
  3. Remove the foil and point the horn at the body, at a distance of a few centimetres. There will be a noticeable deflection.

Teaching Notes

  • Students may be surprised to discover that they emit infra-red radiation. Thermal imaging systems used by the military and by emergency workers (e.g. seeking people trapped in burning or collapsed buildings) detect this infra-red radiation.
  • You can show that the detector is responding to infra-red radiation by placing a simple aluminium reflector, painted black, between the radiation source (human body) and detector. The detector will show no effect. Infra-red photons are absorbed by the black coating; any microwaves noise will be reflected without any loss.
  • The experiment can also be used when discussing radio telescopes. While gathering radio waves emitted from astronomical objects, radio telescopes also detect ‘noise’ in the form of infra-red radiation from Earth’s horizon, the atmosphere and the antenna itself.
  • The operation of a radio telescope involves identifying noise power and improving the signal-to-noise ratio. Radio astronomers think of the various contributions to noise in terms of system noise ‘temperature’. Nobel prize-winners Wilson and Penzias were studying just such effects when they identified cosmic microwave background radiation, corresponding to a black body radiator at a temperature of 3 K.
  • Electromagnetic radiation will be detected from the head, body, limbs, etc. and also from a plastic bucket of hot water. This will mainly be infra-red radiation but may also include some from the microwave region (depending on the detector used). Radiation will not be detected from a metal container, since reflective surfaces are poor radiators of infra-red radiation.
  • The long wavelength portion of the electromagnetic spectrum gathered by a radio telescope is referred to as the Rayleigh-Jeans region. In this region, as wavelength increases, the solid angle of the beam that an antenna collects also increases, meaning it sees a greater surface emitting noise consisting of infra-red radiation. But as wavelength increases, the surface brightness decreases. These two effects counteract each other, so the noise power per bandwidth interval is uniform across the...

    Rayleigh-Jeans region

  • Electromagnetic radiation gathered will warm the telescope’s detector, producing ‘Johnson noise’, random motions of electrons in a metal conductor. Johnson noise power, P , in watts, given by P = 4 kT Δ f , where k is Boltzmann's constant in joules per kelvin, T is the conductor temperature in kelvins, and Δ f is the bandwidth in hertz.
  • Some astronomical detectors are cooled by liquid helium to reduce Johnson noise.

This experiment was originally submitted by David Sumner, a Science Technician at Glebelands School in Surrey. It now incorporates improvements suggested by microwave engineer Jiri Polivka, of Santa Barbara, California.

Energy Transferred by Radiation
appears in the relation ΔQ=PΔt
is a special case of Energy Transferred by Heating
is used in analyses relating to Radiative Heating
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