8.2 Introduction

All living organisms interact with their environment through a continuous exchange of matter and energy. Conceptually, this can be thought of as a consequence of the “openness” of the system in a thermodynamic sense. For a complete understanding of the biology of an organism, it is essential to determine the ways in which the organism interacts with the biotic and abiotic factors present in the external environment. To most biologists, the exchange of energy between an organism and its environment in the form of radiation is probably the least well understood abiotic factor affecting the organism. This exchange is also often the most difficult to measure. However, its importance to the organism cannot be overemphasized.

There are two ways in which the process of radiation exchange is of biological interest. The governing principles of this physical process are different for the two distinct biological applications.

First, there is the dynamical balance of the radiation flow between the organism and its environment, and its effect on the homeostasis of the organism. This dynamical balance is best described by the modern form of radiation theory, which is based on Planck’s theory of black body radiation, and which is exemplified in the generally useful results entailed in Wien’s law of shift and the Stefan-Boltzmann law. Several simple biological applications of this modern radiation theory are developed in this module. Further applications are presented elsewhere in this series of modules.

Second, there is the interpretation of the energy sensing by the organism, as a means of obtaining information about the environment. The selective advantage that results from improved information gathering has led to the evolution of many specialized sense organs. The function of these organs is best described by the classical theory of radiation, particularly as entailed in Rayleigh’s criterion and the Doppler effect. The balance of biological examples discussed here are of this second type.

The nature of the physical processes of radiation exchange imposes strong constraints on the evolution of biological systems. This module presents some of the results of classical and modern radiation theory and shows how they elucidate these physical constraints. It is demonstrated that radiation theory is applicable to a wide range of sense organs (eyes, ears, pits); radiation types (electromagnetic, sound), wavelengths (optical, infrared), and organisms.