1 Introduction
Diffraction is the spreading of a wave that occurs when the wave passes through an aperture or around an obstruction. The spreading is most pronounced when the the aperture or obstruction has linear dimensions not too much larger than the wavelength of the wave. In this document, I’ ll treat the diffraction of monochromatic plane waves of the type discussed in the wave properties of light article. Such a monochromatic plane wave could be described by the electric field, ˆ (1) E = A sin ( ω t − k z ) x

Such a wave is called monochromatic because it has a single frequency. It is a plane wave because the electric field has the same value at every point in any given plane perpendicular to the direction of propagation. To garner a rough notion why diffraction occurs, note that a monochromatic plane wave can be constructed from an infinite series of spherical waves whose centers are equally distributed throughout any plane perpendicular to the direction of propagation. This is well animated at http: / /id. mind. net/~ zona/ mstm/physics/waves/ propagation/huygens1 . html–take a look. A beginning of an understanding of the spreading of the light direction can be garnered from noting that an elimination of some of the Huygen’ s Construction emitters leads to a spreading of the light directions. This is illustrated in the figure below.

F igure 1 . Diffraction through an aperture.

As we will see the intensity in the far field can be calculated to be the result of the superposition of the Huygens’ “wavelets”.

2 Single Slit Diffraction
In the interference discussion of the Wave Properties of Light handout we saw that light from two different slits will overlap on a screen placed in front of the slits. In the overlap region there will be places of constructive and destructive interference since light from the slits, in general, will travels different distances to a given point on the screen. In that discussion we treated the slits as having essentially no width. In this section I will show that when light passes through a single slit of finite width there results an interference pattern on a screen placed in front of the slit. The generic set-up for single slit diffraction is shown below. A fringe pattern will occur on the screen for this set-up because light from different portions of the slit will travel different distances to the screen thus allowing for the possibility of constructive and destructive interference between light that originates from different portions of the slit. 1

In fact the amplitude should decrease ( the increments “emit” spherical wavelets. dE is the incremental field that emanates from the increment d s . D iffraction from a single slit. b/ 2 E=A − b/ 2 sin ( ω t − k ( z 0 D + s sin ( θ ) ) ) d s ( 4) . . . However for ( L b) the distance is nearly the same for all slit increments and so the relative amplitudes of the fields coming from all the slit increments is nearly the same. Note from the figure that the slit width is taken to be b . ) . . s locates a particular increment of width ds in the slit. The approximation involved is that the screen is far from the slit so that all rays from the slit reaching point P are nearly parallel. I have chosen to call the distance from the center of the slit to a particular point P on the screen z 0 D . d E = A ds sin ( ω t − k zs D ) ( 3) Here A ds in the amplitude of electric field at point P resulting from the field propagation from an increment ds located at s in the slit. The slit to screen distance is L and the location on the screen relative to the center of the interference/diffraction pattern is y . Adding the field contributions from all of the increments gives.2 S ection 2 L dE P + ss zsD = z0D Laser Light b s θ in(θ) y z0D F igure 2 . Each incremental field will be taken to have the form ( at point P ) . z s D = z 0 D + s sin ( θ ) ( 2) ( Recall that in the Wave Properties of Light handout I stated without proof that the difference in distance to the screen from two points a distance d apart was d sin θ . Equation 3 is only approximately true. ) I’ ll write the field at P as the sum( integral) of the electric fields emanating from all the increments in the slit ( sort of using Huygen’ s Principle here. . The situation is the same here. ) with distance from the slit and this distance ( to point P ) is different for different slit increments. If this is the case the distance from a increment of the slit at s to point P is given by. for the total field at point P .

The zeros of the intensity occur when.3 0. 1 k b sin θ m in = m π m = 0 ± 1 . T he plot uses λ = 5 00 nm and b = 0. sin ( βm in ) = 0 βm in = m π m= 0 ± 1.6 I/I0 0. This function is plotted below as a function of θ .004 0. 1 mm.006 -0.004 -0. 2 λ ( b / 2) sin θ m in = m λ / 2 m = 0 ± 1 .S ingle S lit D iffraction 3 Doing the integration and simplifying gives. Note that the intensity of the interference/diffraction pattern produced by a single slit has a bright central maximum and significantly ( and successively) less bright secondary maxima. 2 1 2π b sin θ m in = m π m = 0 ± 1 . That there is a bright spot at the center of the pattern can be understood by noting that the fields coming from pairs of increments equally spaced from the center of the slit will be in phase at the center of the pattern and so will constructively interfere there.2 0.006 F igure 3. ( 7) This is often written in the standard form accomplished by defining β = I = I0 sin 2 ( β ) β2 with I0 = A 2 b 2 / ( 2 µ 0 c ) .002 θ in radians 0 0.4 0. I= 1 µ0 c E2 = ( 2 A ) 2 sin 2 ( k b sin ( θ ) / 2) 2 µ0 c k 2 sin 2 θ 1 2 ( 6) k b sin θ .5 0. S ingle slit Diffraction: Intensity as a function of angular position on screen.002 0.1 0 -0.7 0. The pattern also exhibits zero intensity positions.9 0. E= 2 A sin ( ω t − k z 0 D ) sin ( k b sin ( θ ) / 2) k sin ( θ ) ( 5) The intensity at the point P ( at angle θ ) is then.8 0. ±2 ±2 ±2 ±2 ( 8) . 1 0.

The angular width from the central maximum to the first minimum is often used as the spreading angle ( or better 1 / 2 the spreading angle) associated with passage through a slit. The above relation indicates that at the angle given by using m = 1 in Equation ( 8) . . ) So when the condition in Equation ( 8) is met the fields from increments in the upper and lower halves of the slit will destructively interfere in pairs leaving no total electric field. The diffraction pattern formed by an aperture or obstruction gives detailed information about the nature of the aperture or obstruction. 22 λ θ sp rea d = . In this case the light from increments in the upper 1 /4 of the slit destructively interferes with light from the next 1 / 4 of the slit and light from the third 1 /4 of the slit destructively interferes with light from the last quarter of the slit. the spreading angle is sin ( θ s pread / 2) = λ / b For small angles this relation becomes. the fields from increments in the upper half of the slit will have path lengths that differ by λ / 2 from the path lengths of fields coming from increments b / 2 below them in the lower half of the slit. A similar argument hold for the angle given by m = 2 . Without showing the more complicated two dimensional integrations required to prove the following result. Note that the spreading angle decreases as the slit width increases relative to λ . The important result from this section is that diffraction effects become more important as the size of the aperture or obstruction is reduced towards the wavelength of light. The spreading formula is not valid for b < λ . The general argument can be extended to explain the positions of all of the zeros of the pattern. circular aperture ( 1 0) Diameter Below I show several diffraction patterns. slit ( 9) F igure 4. In this case the central maximum would fill the entire screen. I’ ll simply state that the spreading angles for a circular aperture turns out to be. ( Remember that the paths differ by d sin θ where d is the separation between the sources. 1 .4 S ection 2 The minima are a result of destructive interference. T he first two images are circular diffraction patterns. slit The spreading angle is sometimes called the angle of diffraction . θ s pr ead ≈ 2 λ / b . The arrangement of atoms in a solid can be probed by using x-rays ( wavelengths less than the spacing between atoms ( ∼ 1 0 − 9 m ) and observing the diffraction pattern formed by the x-rays that pass through the solid. T he third image is the light pattern on a screen placed just past a square aperture and the last picture is the “far-field” diffraction pattern from the same square aperture. The spreading angle is its maximum value 1 80 ◦ when b = λ . Accordingly.

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