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Diffraction of Light

We classically think of light as always traveling in straight lines, but when light
waves pass near a barrier they tend to bend around that barrier and become
spread out. Diffraction of light occurs when a light wave passes by a corner or
through an opening or slit that is physically the approximate size of, or even
smaller than that light's wavelength.

A very simple demonstration of diffraction can be conducted by holding your hand

in front of a light source and slowly closing two fingers while observing the light
transmitted between them. As the fingers approach each other and come very
close together, you begin to see a series of dark lines parallel to the fingers. The
parallel lines are actually diffraction patterns. This phenomenon can also occur
when light is "bent" around particles that are on the same order of magnitude as
the wavelength of the light. A good example of this is the diffraction of sunlight by
clouds that we often refer to as a silver lining, illustrated in Figure 1 with a
beautiful sunset over the ocean.
We can often observe pastel shades of blue, pink, purple, and green in clouds
that are generated when light is diffracted from water droplets in the clouds. The
amount of diffraction depends on the wavelength of light, with shorter wavelengths
being diffracted at a greater angle than longer ones (in effect, blue and violet light
are diffracted at a higher angle than is red light). As a light wave traveling through
the atmosphere encounters a droplet of water, as illustrated below, it is first
refracted at the water:air interface, then it is reflected as it again encounters the
interface. The beam, still traveling inside the water droplet, is once again refracted
as it strikes the interface for a third time. This last interaction with the interface
refracts the light back into the atmosphere, but it also diffracts a portion of the light
as illustrated below. This diffraction element leads to a phenomenon known
as Cellini's halo (also known as theHeiligenschein effect) where a bright ring of
light surrounds the shadow of the observer's head.

The terms diffraction and scattering are often used interchangeably and are
considered to be almost synonymous. Diffraction describes a specialized case of
light scattering in which an object with regularly repeating features (such as a
diffraction grating) produces an orderly diffraction of light in a diffraction pattern. In
the real world most objects are very complex in shape and should be considered
to be composed of many individual diffraction features that can collectively
produce a random scattering of light.
One of the classic and most fundamental concepts involving diffraction is the
single-slit optical diffraction experiment, first conducted in the early nineteenth
century. When a light wave propagates through a slit (or aperture) the result
depends upon the physical size of the aperture with respect to the wavelength of
the incident beam. This is illustrated in Figure 3 assuming a coherent,
monochromatic wave emitted from point source S, similar to light that would be
produced by a laser, passes through aperture d and is diffracted, with the primary
incident light beam landing at point P and the first secondary maxima occurring at
point Q.

As shown in the left side of the figure, when the wavelength () is much smaller
than the aperture width (d), the wave simply travels onward in a straight line, just
as it would if it were a particle or no aperture were present. However, when the
wavelength exceeds the size of the aperture, we experience diffraction of the light
according to the equation:
sin = /d
Where is the angle between the incident central propagation direction and the
first minimum of the diffraction pattern. The experiment produces a bright central
maximum which is flanked on both sides by secondary maxima, with the intensity
of each succeeding secondary maximum decreasing as the distance from the
center increases. Figure 4 illustrates this point with a plot of beam intensity versus
diffraction radius. Note that the minima occurring between secondary maxima are
located in multiples of .

This experiment was first explained by Augustin Fresnel who, along with Thomas
Young, produced important evidence confirming that light travels in waves. From
the figures above, we see how a coherent, monochromatic light (in this
example, laser illumination) emitted from point L is diffracted by aperture d.
Fresnel assumed that the amplitude of the first order maxima at point Q (defined
as Q) would be given by the equation:
dQ = (A/r)f()d
where A is the amplitude of the incident wave, r is the distance between d and Q,
and f() is a function of, an inclination factor introduced by Fresnel.

Diffraction of Light

Explore how a beam of light is diffracted when it passes through a narrow slit or aperture. Adjust the
wavelength and aperture size and observe how this affects the diffraction intensity pattern.
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Diffraction of light plays a paramount role in limiting the resolving power of any
optical instrument (for example: cameras, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes,
and the eye). The resolving power is the optical instrument's ability to produce
separate images of two adjacent points. This is often determined by the quality of
the lenses and mirrors in the instrument as well as the properties of the
surrounding medium (usually air). The wave-like nature of light forces an ultimate
limit to the resolving power of all optical instruments.

Our discussions of diffraction have used a slit as the aperture through which light
is diffracted. However, all optical instruments have circular apertures, for example
the pupil of an eye or the circular diaphragm and lenses of a microscope. Circular
apertures produce diffraction patterns similar to those described above, except
the pattern naturally exhibits a circular symmetry. Mathematical analysis of the
diffraction patterns produced by a circular aperture is described by the equation:
sin(1) = 1.22(/d)
where (1) is the angular position of the first order diffraction minima (the first dark
ring), is the wavelength of the incident light, d is the diameter of the aperture,
and 1.22 is a constant. Under most circumstances, the angle (1) is very small so
the approximation that the sin and tan of the angle are almost equal yields:
(1) 1.22(/d)
From these equations it becomes apparent that the central maximum is directly
proportional to /d making this maximum more spread out for longer wavelengths
and for smaller apertures. The secondary mimina of diffraction set a limit to the
useful magnification of objective lenses in optical microscopy, due to inherent
diffraction of light by these lenses. No matter how perfect the lens may be, the
image of a point source of light produced by the lens is accompanied by
secondary and higher order maxima. This could be eliminated only if the lens had
an infinite diameter. Two objects separated by a distance less than (1) can not be
resolved, no matter how high the power of magnification. While these equations
were derived for the image of a point source of light an infinite distance from the
aperture, it is a reasonable approximation of the resolving power of a microscope
when d is substituted for the diameter of the objective lens.
Thus, if two objects reside a distance D apart from each other and are at a
distance L from an observer, the angle (expressed in radians) between them is:
which leads us to be able to condense the last two equations to yield:
D(0) = 1.22(L/d)
Where D(0) is the minimum separation distance between the objects that will
allow them to be resolved. Using this equation, the human eye can resolve
objects separated by a distance of 0.056 millimeters, however the photoreceptors
in the retina are not quite close enough together to permit this degree of
resolution, and 0.1 millimeters is a more realistic number under normal

The resolving power of optical microscopes is determined by a number of factors

including those discussed, but in the most ideal circumstances, this number is
about 0.2 micrometers. This number must take into account optical alignment of
the microscope, quality of the lenses, as well as the predominant wavelengths of
light used to image the specimen. While it is often not necessary to calculate the
exact resolving power of each objective (and would be a waste of time in most
instances), it is important to understand the capabilities of the microscope lenses
as they apply to the real world.

When two light waves from different coherent sources meet together, then the distribution
of energy due to one wave is disturbed by the other. This modification in the distribution
of light energy due to super- position of two light waves is called "Interference of light".
The two sources of light should emit continuous waves of same wavelength and same
time period i.e.
the source should have phase coherence.
The two sources of light should be very close to each other.
The waves emitted by two sources should either have zero phase difference or no phase
Those sources of light which emit light waves continuously of same wavelength, and time
period, frequency and amplitude and have zero phase difference or constant phase
difference are coherent sources.
......There are two types of interference.

Constructive interference.
Destructive interference.
When two light waves superpose with each other in such away that the crest of one wave
falls on the crest of the second wave, and trough of one wave falls on the trough of the
second wave, then the resultant wave has larger amplitude and it is called constructive
For constructive interference, path difference between two waves is m
i.e. path difference = m
or path difference = 0,..
where m = order = 0, +_1, +_2, +_3,..

In constructive interference, two waves of light reinforce each other.

In constructive interference, a bright fringe is obtained on the screen.

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When two light waves superpose with each other in such away that the crest of one wave
coincides the trough of the second wave, then the amplitude of resultant wave becomes
zero and it is called destructive interference.
If the path difference between two light waves is (m+1/2) , then the interference
between them will be destructive.
Path difference = (m+1/2)
i.e. path difference = 1/2, 3/2, 5/2 , .
where m = order = 0, +_1, +_2, +_3,..

In destructive interference, two waves cancel the effects of each other.

Due to destructive interference a dark fringe is obtained on the screen.
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Fraunhofer Single Slit

This is an attempt to more clearly visualize the nature of single slit diffraction. The
phenomenon of diffraction involves the spreading out of waves past openings which
are on the order of the wavelength of the wave. The spreading of the waves into the
area of the geometrical shadow can be modeled by considering small elements of the
wavefront in the slit and treating them like point sources.

If light from symmetric elements near each edge of the slit travels to the centerline of
the slit, as indicated by rays 1 and 2 above, their light arrives in phase and experiences
constructive interference. Light from other element pairs symmetric to the centerline
also arrive in phase. Although there is a progressive change in phase as you choose
element pairs closer to the centerline, this center position is nevertheless the most
favorable location for constructive interference of light from the entire slit and has the
highest light intensity.
The first minimum in intensity for the light through a single slit can be visualized in
terms of rays 3 and 4. An element at one edge of the slit and one just past the
centerline are chosen, and the condition for minimum light intensity is that light from
these two elements arrive 180 out of phase, or a half wavelength different in
pathlength. If those two elements suffer destructive interference, then choosing
additional pairs of identical spacing which progress downward across the slit will give
destructive interference for all those pairs and therefore an overall minimum in light
One of the characteristics of single slit diffraction is that a narrower slit will give a
wider diffraction pattern as illustrated below, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. One way to visualize it is to consider that rays 3 and 4 must reach one half
wavelength difference in light pathlength, and if the slit is narrower, it will take a
greater angle of the rays to achieve that difference.

More examples of variation with slit width

The diffraction patterns were taken with a helium-neon laser and a narrow single slit. The slit
widths used were on the order of 100 micrometers, so their widths were 100 times the laser
wavelength or more. A slit width equal to the wavelength of the laser light would spread the first
minimum out to 90 so that no minima would be observed. The relationships between slit width
and the minima and maxima of diffraction can be explored in the single slit calculation.

The diffraction pattern becomes spread out when the slit becomes narrower. (Correction: A
single slit is not a "grating", just a single slit. A grating is a series of slits, many slits.)
Here is why: The angle for the the first minimum is given by
w sin (min) =
is the wavelength of the light,
min is the angle between the central point and the first minimum,
the perpendicular is the line perpendicular to the slit and running to your eyes, or the display
and w is the width lof the slit.
Since wavelength is constant, as the width w decreases, min must increase, which cause the
location of the first minimum to move farther our from the central point, which causes the
diffraction pattern to spread out.

Answer for Double Slit - Other Way Around (Diffraction pattern spreads out)
Here is why: Each band of light in the diffraction pattern is caused by constructive interference.
Constructive interference occurs when

n / d = x / L
is the wavelength of the light,
d is the separation of the slits
n is the order of maximum observed (central maximum is n = 0),
x is the distance between the bands of light and the central maximum (also called fringe
distance), and
L is the perpendicular distance from the slits to the screen (or retina of your eye).
Choose a given band of light to observe. It has some definite value for n. Now decrease
separation d. Since n, , and L are constant, x must increase, where x is the distance from the
central maximum to the band we are observing. (The central band is the band of light directly
under the two slits, the band located on the screen directly across from the center of the two
slits.) Hence the diffraction pattern spreads out.
Note: The intensity (brightness) of the band decreases, also.
Note: You are "looking through" the slit, so the bands of the diffraction pattern are displayed on
the retina of your eye. Another way to view diffraction patterns is to let the diffracted light fall onto
a screen, and view the screen with your eye. The equations apply to both cases, but can be
more easily interpreted using the screen, because then the central point, the central maximum,
the screen distance L, and the fringe distance x (from central maximum band to some fringe
band), and min are easier to see.