A Biography of Light

What is Reality?

Corpuscular Theory

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In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton conducted experiments to investigate the nature of light Seven colours identified Explained rectilinear propagation, reflection and refraction Velocity predicted to be greater in denser medium

Wave theory

Light imagined to be a mechanical longitudinal wave propagating through hypothetical ‘ether’ Interference – Newton’s rings and Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment Diffraction-bending of light around obstacles; illumination of geometrical shadow Both explained by superposition principle

More successes of wave theory

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Huygens - Secondary wavelets emanating from each point of wave front Polarization and rectilinear propagation required transverse wave Fresnel explained rectilinear propagation Locus of all particles vibrating in same phase is wavefront Variation of velocity with medium explained —slower in denser medium

Maxwell’s unification
James Clerk Maxwell unifies electricity and magnetism  Predicts an electromagnetic wave,travelling with velocity of light  No apparent medium for propagation

Propagation of light
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Electromagnetic wave is transverse When either E or B varies with time,the other is induced in space Electric and magnetic fields perpendicular to each other and direction of propagation Varying harmonically Speed depends on

Electromagnetic spectrum

Consists of a continuous spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays Visible light ,of wavelengths from 350 to 750 nm


Vibration of fields confined to a single plane perpendicular to direction of propagation Linear, elliptical or circular polarization

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Frequency of light can appear to be shifted depending on relative motion of source and observer Blue-shift if motion towards each other Red-shift if away from each other

Doppler effect

Problems with wave theory
 Wave propagated through an all-pervading

hypothetical ‘ether’, but undetectable  No reference frame mentioned in Maxwell’s theory  Michelson-Morley experiment failed to detect motion of earth through ether

Michelson-Morley experiment

Attempted to detect motion of earth through ether Based on an interferometer, to detect path difference between light beams travelling along and across earth’s direction of motion Path difference expected based on classical theory, but none detected


Einstein assumes that speed of light is same for all observers, regardless of their motion No preferred frame in mechanics, but has to be modified to agree with Maxwell’s electrodynamics

Blackbody  Intensity radiation proportional to
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fourth-power of temperature Spread over many wavelengths Wavelength of max intensity inversely proportional to temperature Unexplainable by wave theory Explanation requires hypothesis of light quanta

Quantum era begins
Max Planck assumes that energy can be exchanged only in packets  ‘Ultraviolet catastrophe’ averted  Einstein uses photons to explain photoelectric effect  Quantization a part of Bohr’s atomic model

Various types of spectra

Emission spectrumlight emitted by materials is of characteristic wavelength. Photons are emitted when electron makes transition from higher to lower level Absorption spectracertain wavelengths in incident light are absorbed and are missing in spectrum Photons absorbed when electrons jump from lower to higher

Raman effect
 Scattered light

from a molecule consists of wavelengths other than the incident one  Raman shift is characteristic of each molecule  Explained fully only by quantum theory

Photoelectric effect

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Electrons emitted when light of frequency above critical frequency strikes certain metal surfaces Number of electrons ejected is proportional to intensity but independent of frequency. No time interval between arrival of light and emission of photoelectrons. Cannot be explained by wave theory. Theoretically explained by Einstein.

More support for particle theory.

Compton effect- when X rays interact with electrons, wave length changes. Not explained using wave theory.


Certain phenomena require wave picture while others require particle picture. Wave-particle duality not only for light,but also all matter---de Broglie wavelength Light quanta are called photons, no rest mass.

Investigation of nature of light has led to advances in many areas of physics Light is the unifying thread running through all branches of physics