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Spectrum in a rainbow.

A spectrum (plural spectra or spectrums) is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a continuum. The word was first used scientifically within the field of optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light when separated using a prism. As scientific understanding of light advanced, it came to apply to the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Spectrum has since been applied by analogy to topics outside of optics. Thus, one might talk about the spectrum of political opinion, or the spectrum of activity of a drug, or the autism spectrum. In these uses, values within a spectrum may not be associated with precisely quantifiable numbers or definitions. Such uses imply a broad range of conditions or behaviors grouped together and studied under a single title for ease of discussion.

In most modern usages of spectrum there is a unifying theme between extremes at either end. Some older usages of the word did not have a unifying theme, but they led to modern ones through a sequence of events set out below. Modern usages in mathematics did evolve from a unifying theme, but this may be difficult to recognize.

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