A spectrum (plural spectra or spectrums) is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without gaps, across a continuum. The word was first used scientifically in optics to describe the rainbow of colors in visible light after passing through a prism. As scientific understanding of light advanced, it came to apply to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It thereby became a mapping of a range of magnitudes (wavelengths) to a range of qualities, which are the perceived "colors of the rainbow" and other properties which correspond to wavelengths that lie outside of the visible light spectrum.
Spectrum has since been applied by analogy to topics outside 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. Nonscientific uses of the term spectrum are sometimes misleading. For instance, a single left–right spectrum of political opinion does not capture the full range of people's political beliefs. Political scientists use a variety of biaxial and multiaxial systems to more accurately characterize political opinion.
In most modern usages of spectrum there is a unifying theme between the extremes at either end. This was not always true in older usage.