Light Scattering and Wave Motion: some thoughts

Have you ever been in an auditorium of some kind, or a church, in which your view of a speaker is blocked by a pillar, but you can still hear what is being said? Why can your ears receive auditory signals, but your eyes cannot receive visual ones (excluding Superman of course)? The reason for this is related to the wavelengths of the waves, being ≃1 m and ≃10⁻⁷ m respectively. The latter, in effect, "scatters" more like a particle while the former is able to diffract ("bend") around an obstacle comparable in size to its wavelength. This is a consequence of the wave nature of (in this case) sound. By the same token, therefore, we would expect that light waves can diffract around appropriately smaller obstacles, and indeed this is the case, as evidenced by softly-colored rings of light around the moon (coronae) as thin cloud scuds past its face. Another diffraction-induced meteorological phenomenon is the green, purple-red or blue iridescence occasionally visible in clouds. As might be inferred, then, two of the most fundamental and widespread phenomena that occur in the realm of nature are (i) the scattering of light and (ii) wave motion. Both may occur almost anywhere given the right circumstances, and both may be described in mathematical terms at varying levels of complexity. It is, for example, the scattering of light both by air molecules and the much larger dust particles (or more generally, aerosols) that combine to give the amazing range of color, hues and tints at sunrise or sunset that give us so much pleasure. The deep blue sky above and the red glow near the sun at the end of the day are due to molecular scattering of light. My two favorite optical phenomena are the rainbow and the ‘glory’. They both can be exquisitely beautiful sights. The rainbow is formed by sunlight scattered in preferential directions by near-spherical raindrops: scattering in this context means refraction and reflection. Using a simple mathematical description of this phenomenon, Descartes in 1637 was able to "hang the rainbow in the sky" (i.e. deduce its location relative to the sun and observer); to "paint" the rainbow required the genius of Newton some thirty years later. The bright primary and fainter secondary bows are well described by elementary mathematics, but the more subtle observable features require some of the most sophisticated techniques of mathematical physics to explain them. A related phenomenon is that of the glory: a set of colored, concentric rainbow-like rings surrounding, for example, the shadow of an airplane on a cloud below. This, like the rainbow, is also a “backscatter” effect, and intriguingly, both the rainbow and the glory have their counterparts in atomic and nuclear physics; mathematics is a unifying feature between these two widely-differing contexts. The beautiful circular arcs known as halos, seen best in arctic climes, are formed by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals of various shapes in the upper atmosphere. Sundogs, those colored splotches of light, often seen on both sides of the sun when high cirrus clouds are present, are similarly formed. Like the scattering of light, wave motion is ubiquitous, though we cannot always see it. It is manifested in the atmosphere, for example, by billow clouds and lee-wave clouds downwind from a hill or mountain. Waves on the surface of puddles, ponds, lakes or oceans are governed by mathematical relationships between their speed, wavelength and the depth of the water. The wakes produced by ships or ducks generate strikingly similar patterns relative to their size; again this correspondence is described by mathematical expressions of the physical laws that govern the motion. The situation is even more complex in the atmosphere: the “compressible” nature of

a gas renders other types of wave motion possible. Sand dunes are another complex and beautiful example of waves, in a broader sense. They can occur on a scale of centimeters to kilometers, and like surface waves on bodies of water, it is only the waveform that actually moves; the body of sand is stationary (except at the surface). Beautiful and fascinating as all this is, there are many “practical” applications of these phenomena. Indeed, to quote from the synopsis of a recent book, the scattering of light from nonspherical particles is an important “research tool in astrophysics, atmospheric radiation, biology, biomedical optics, optical engineering, oceanography, planetary and space physics, radar meteorology, and remote sensing.” Some of the existing “rainbow research” may be of value in the field of rainbow refractometry and thermometry, which are optical techniques used to measure the refractive index (and hence temperature) of transparent particles (including fuel droplets). These techniques can be used to determine very small spatial and time-varying changes in refractive index, and are valuable for analysis of the combustion of liquid hydrocarbons, the injection of sprays in high-pressure environments, as well as spraying/drying techniques employed in the food, agricultural, pharmaceutical industries and in nano-technology (e.g. some refractometry studies have been carried out to determine the refractive indices and radii of unclad optical fibers).

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