How Light Works

We see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate kids’ crayon drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, a blue sky, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on mirrors to make ourselves presentable, and sparkling gemstones to show affection. But did you ever stop to think that when we see any of these things, we are not directly connected to it? We are, in fact, seeing light — light that somehow left objects far or near and reached our eyes. Light is all our eyes can really see.

The other way that we encounter light is in devices that produce light — incandescent bulbs, fluorescent bulbs, lasers,lightning bugs, and the sun. Each one uses a different technique to generate photons.

The other key to a laser is a pair of mirrors, one at each end of the lasing medium. Photons, with a very specific wavelength and phase, reflect off the mirrors to travel back and forth through the lasing medium. In the process, they stimulate other electrons to make the downward energy jump and can cause the emission of more photons of the same wavelength and phase. A cascade effect occurs, and soon we have propagated many, many photons of the same wavelength and phase. The mirror at one end of the laser is “half-silvered,” meaning it reflects some light and lets some light through. The light that makes it through is the laser light.

Ways of Thinking About Light

You have probably heard two different ways of talking about light:
There is the “particle” theory, expressed in part by the word photon.
There is the “wave” theory, expressed by the term light wave.
From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have thought of light as a stream of tiny particles. After all, light travels in straight lines and bounces off a mirror much like a ball bouncing off a wall. No one had actually seen particles of light, but even now it’s easy to explain why that might be. The particles could be too small, or moving too fast, to be seen, or perhaps our eyes see right through them.

The idea of the light wave came from Christian Huygens, who proposed in the late 1600s that light acted like a wave instead of a stream of particles. In 1807, Thomas Young backed up Huygens’ theory by showing that when light passes through a very narrow opening, it can spread out, and interfere with light passing through another opening. Young shined a light through a very narrow slit. What he saw was a bright bar of light that corresponded to the slit. But that was not all he saw. Young also perceived additional light, not as bright, in the areas around the bar. If light were a stream of particles, this additional light would not have been there. This experiment suggested that light spread out like a wave. In fact, a beam of light radiates outward at all times.

Albert Einstein advanced the theory of light further in 1905. Einstein considered the photoelectric effect, in which ultraviolet light hits a surface and causes electrons to be emitted from the surface. Einstein’s explanation for this was that light was made up of a stream of energy packets called photons.

Modern physicists believe that light can behave as both a particle and a wave, but they also recognize that either view is a simple explanation for something more complex. In this article, we will talk about light as waves, because this provides the best explanation for most of the phenomena our eyes can see.

Shelley Novello