Light

If you have ever spent a day at the beach, you would have noticed waves breaking against the shore. Light doesnt immediately fit this description of a wave, even though it is a wave. Light waves are periodic, just like the water waves in the ocean. They can also experience properties of wave motion that are usually associated with other types of waves, such as reflection, refraction and diffraction, to state a few examples.

Light Light

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Contents
Table of contents

    The definition of light

    Before we can discuss how light behaves, we must be able to identify what light is. There are many descriptions that can be used to classify waves but to avoid confusion, we will consider light as purely a wave. We can then define it as below.

    Light is defined as an electromagnetic wave with a wavelength in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum (380 to 700 nanometres). That is, light is any electromagnetic wave that we can see with our eyes.

    The nature of light

    We have stated that light is a wave, suggesting that every ray of light should have an associated wavelength and travel in a straight line.

    The wavelength is the distance between any two successive points on a wave that are in phase (e.g., two successive crests or two successive troughs).

    Light waves can have different wavelengths, which determine the colour of visible light that is observed. This means that every time you view a beautiful red rose on a sunny day, your eyes perceive a reflection of red light from the rose, which has a wavelength of about 650 nm.

    We can be more precise now and say that the nature of light is that of a transverse wave. It carries energy from one point to another, just as all travelling waves do. The word transverse is simply a reference to the fact that electric and magnetic fields are oscillating (waving), hence the word electromagnetic.

    White light, like light from the sun, consists of all the wavelengths of visible light together. We know this because light exhibits a property called dispersion when passing through a glass prism, as shown in the figure below.

    Light Diagram showing the Dispersion of light StudySmarterWhite light is dispersed through a prism into all the colours in the visible spectrum, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

    White light, once dispersed, gives us all the colours in the visible electromagnetic spectrum, which is what you would see in a rainbow. Red light has a wavelength of about 700 nanometres (700 x 109 metres), while violet light at the opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum has a wavelength of about 380 nanometres.

    The speed of light

    All travelling waves can essentially be thought of as energy-carrying oscillations in motion. This means that light waves should be no different, and if light is in motion, it must have a speed. It turns out that light not only has a speed but that its speed is the fastest in the universe. The speed of light in free space, c, is 300 million metres per second (3.00 x 108 m/s), which is a constant and is essentially the speed limit of the universe that cannot be exceeded by any other object.

    Its important to note that light has different speeds in different materials but that speed c is in a vacuum.

    This statement tells us that irrespective of the colour (or wavelength) of light, its speed is always the same. We know, however, from the topic of waves that the speed of a wave v, or in this case, c, can be written as follows:

    speed = frequency × wavelength c=fλ

    Here, we know that the wavelength of the light is λ, and the frequency of the wave is f. This is known as the wave equation. Therefore, to keep c constant, the wavelength and frequency of the wave must be inversely proportional (i.e., an increase in one leads to a decrease in the other and vice versa).

    The frequency f of a wave is the number of complete oscillations in the wave passing a fixed point every second. Frequency is measured in s-1 or equivalently Hz.

    Let us use this equation to find the wavelength of red light in the following example.

    What is the wavelength of the red light that is emitted from a 4.6 x 1014 Hz laser?

    We know the frequency of the laser light and that the speed of light c is 3.00 x 108 m/s, so we can apply the wave equation:

    c=fλλ=cf =3.00×108 ms-14.6×1014 Hz =6.5×10-7 m =650 nm

    This wavelength corresponds to the colour red.

    The properties of light

    There are many properties of light waves, but we will discuss two in detail: reflection and refraction. These are two of the more important properties of light, which can be used to make observations of distant objects in the universe.

    Reflection

    We have mentioned before that the colour of a rose is due to the reflection of visible light from the rose. Reflection is a property of wave motion that is exhibited by visible light. Reflection occurs when light that is travelling through a certain medium is incident onto a boundary between two media, and the light bounces off the boundary or changes direction upon striking this boundary and moves on in the original medium. For an illustration of this, see the diagram below.

    Light Diagram showing the reflection of light StudySmarterA ray of light travelling through the air is incident on a plane mirror. It is reflected, that is, it changes direction and remains in the air, Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

    We can see that the angle with respect to the plane mirror is the same for the incoming electromagnetic ray as it is for the reflected ray. Picture yourself standing in the path of the reflected ray and replace the plane mirror with a calm blue lake. The lake reflects the visible light rays from the sky (clouds and all) and sends the reflected rays into your eyes, which is why you can view the sky above whilst looking down.

    Refraction

    Refraction is another property of wave motion that is displayed by visible light. It occurs when light rays move from one medium to another and, upon doing so, change direction and speed. This is illustrated by the red arrow in the figure below.

    Light Diagram showing the refraction of light StudySmarterA ray of light strikes the boundary between two media. It undergoes refraction by changing direction and moving along the red line, adapted from an image by CNX OpenStax CC BY 4.0

    The types of media and the wavelength (colour) of incident light determine the extent to which a light ray is refracted when moving between the media. Refraction is the reason why objects in a deep pool or lake seem closer to the surface than they actually are. This phenomenon is called apparent depth and has tricked many fisherfolks in the past.

    The illustration below shows a pencil placed in a beaker of water. The bottom end of the pencil lies at point X but actually appears to be located at Y to someone observing from above. We say that the apparent depth of the bottom end of the pencil is the distance from Y to the surface.

    Light Diagram showing a pen inside a water illustrating the refraction of light StudySmarterAn illustration of apparent depth. A pencil with its bottom end at X actually appears to have its bottom end at Y due to refraction, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

    Other properties of light

    Reflection and refraction are not the only properties of light waves, but they are two of the more important ones. Other properties of light include interference, diffraction, polarisation, scattering, and dispersion. Like apparent depth, a further study of each of these properties will give us insights into phenomena we experience every day but cant seem to explain.

    Light - Key takeaways

    • Light is a wave and falls in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
    • Light waves travel in straight lines.
    • The wavelength of a visible light wave determines its colour.
    • Violet light has a wavelength of 380 nanometres, while red light at the other end of the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum has a wavelength of 700 nanometres.
    • The speed of light in free space c is 300 million metres per second (3.00 x 108 m/s) and is the fastest speed of any object in the universe.
    • The wave equation is given by c = f x λ, where λ is the wavelength of light while f is the frequency.
    • Reflection is a property of light whereby a ray of light strikes the boundary between two media and stays in its original medium.

    • Refraction is a property of light whereby a ray of light strikes the boundary between two media and moves from the first medium into the second, changing direction and speed in the process.

    • The apparent depth of objects submerged in water can be explained by refraction.

    • Other properties of light include interference, diffraction, polarisation, scattering, and dispersion.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Light

    What are the characteristics of light?

    Light behaves both as a wave and particle. Light has a speed of 300 million metres per second.

    What are the types of light?

    The types of light are the different colours that correspond to different wavelengths in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

    What is the nature of light?

    Light can act as both a particle and a wave.

    How does light work in physics?

    Light is an electromagnetic wave that carries energy in the visible spectrum. Humans can perceive light waves with their eyes.

    What are the properties of light?

    The properties of light are refraction, reflection, diffraction, interference, dispersion, polarisation, and scattering.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the nature of light?

    The frequency of a wave is the time taken for a complete oscillation to occur.

    Which of the following is the correct unit of measurement for frequency?

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