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The Nature of Light
The cause and effect relationship in vision
Despite its title, this chapter is far from your first look at light. That familiarity might seem like an advantage, but most people have never thought carefully about light and vision. Even smart people who have thought hard about vision have come up with incorrect ideas. The ancient Greeks, Arabs and Chinese had theories of light and vision, all of which were mostly wrong, and all of which were accepted for thousands of years.
One thing the ancients did get right is that there is a distinction between objects that emit light and objects that don't. When you see a leaf in the forest, it's because three different objects are doing their jobs: the leaf, the eye, and the sun. But luminous objects like the sun, a flame, or the filament of a light bulb can be seen by the eye without the presence of a third object. Emission of light is often, but not always, associated with heat. In modern times, we are familiar with a variety of objects that glow without being heated, including fluorescent lights and glow-in-the-dark toys.
How do we see luminous objects? The Greek philosophers Pythagoras (b. ca. 560 BC) and Empedocles of Acragas (b. ca. 492 BC), who unfortunately were very influential, claimed that when you looked at a candle flame, the flame and your eye were both sending out some kind of mysterious stuff, and when your eye's stuff collided with the candle's stuff, the candle would become evident to your sense of sight.
Bizarre as the Greek "collision of stuff theory" might seem, it had a couple of good features. It explained why both the candle and your eye had to be present for your sense of sight to function. The theory could also easily be expanded to explain how we see nonluminous objects. If a leaf, for instance, happened to be present at the site of the collision between your eye's stuff and the candle's stuff, then the leaf would be stimulated to express its green nature, allowing you to perceive it as green.
Modern people might feel uneasy about this theory, since it suggests that greenness exists only for our seeing convenience, implying a human precedence over natural phenomena. Nowadays, people would expect the cause and effect relationship in vision to be the other way around, with the leaf doing something to our eye rather than our eye doing something to the leaf. But how can you tell? The most common way of distinguishing cause from effect is to determine which happened first, but the process of seeing seems to occur too quickly to determine the order in which things happened. Certainly there is no obvious time lag between the moment when you move your head and the moment when your reflection in the mirror moves.
Today, photography provides the simplest experimental evidence that nothing has to be emitted from your eye and hit the leaf in order to make it "greenify." A camera can take a picture of a leaf even if there are no eyes anywhere nearby. Since the leaf appears green regardless of whether it is being sensed by a camera, your eye, or an insect's eye, it seems to make more sense to say that the leaf 's greenness is the cause, and something happening in the camera or eye is the effect.
Light is a thing, and it travels from one point to another.
Another issue that few people have considered is whether a candle's flame simply affects your eye directly, or whether it sends out light which then gets into your eye. Again, the rapidity of the effect makes it difficult to tell what's happening. If someone throws a rock at you, you can see the rock on its way to your body, and you can tell that the person affected you by sending a material substance your way, rather than just harming you directly with an arm motion, which would be known as "action at a distance." It is not easy to do a similar observation to see whether there is some "stuff " that travels from the candle to your eye, or whether it is a case of action at a distance.
Newtonian physics includes both action at a distance (e.g. the earth's gravitational force on a falling object) and contact forces such as the normal force, which only allow distant objects to exert forces on each other by shooting some substance across the space between them (e.g. a garden hose spraying out water that exerts a force on a bush).
One piece of evidence that the candle sends out stuff that travels to your eye is that intervening transparent substances can make the candle appear to be in the wrong location, suggesting that light is a thing that can be bumped off course. Many people would dismiss this kind of observation as an optical illusion, however. (Some optical illusions are purely neurological or psychological effects, although some others, including this one, turn out to be caused by the behavior of light itself.)
A more convincing way to decide in which category light belongs is to find out if it takes time to get from the candle to your eye; in Newtonian physics, action at a distance is supposed to be instantaneous. The fact that we speak casually today of "the speed of light" implies that at some point in history, somebody succeeded in showing that light did not travel infinitely fast. Galileo tried, and failed, to detect a finite speed for light, by arranging with a person in a distant tower to signal back and forth with lanterns. Galileo uncovered his lantern, and when the other person saw the light, he uncovered his lantern. Galileo was unable to measure any time lag that was significant compared to the limitations of human reflexes.
The first person to prove that light's speed was finite, and to determine it numerically, was Ole Roemer, in a series of measurements around the year 1675. Roemer observed Io, one of Jupiter's moons, over a period of several years. Since Io presumably took the same amount of time to complete each orbit of Jupiter, it could be thought of as a very distant, very accurate clock. A practical and accurate pendulum clock had recently been invented, so Roemer could check whether the ratio of the two clocks' cycles, about 42.5 hours to 1 orbit, stayed exactly constant or changed a little. If the process of seeing the distant moon was instantaneous, there would be no reason for the two to get out of step. Even if the speed of light was finite, you might expect that the result would be only to offset one cycle relative to the other.
The earth does not, however, stay at a constant distance from Jupiter and its moons. Since the distance is changing gradually due to the two planets' orbital motions, a finite speed of light would make the "Io clock" appear to run faster as the planets drew near each other, and more slowly as their separation increased. Roemer did find a variation in the apparent speed of Io's orbits, which caused Io's eclipses by Jupiter (the moments when Io passed in front of or behind Jupiter) to occur about 7 minutes early when the earth was closest to Jupiter, and 7 minutes late when it was farthest. Based on these measurements, Roemer estimated the speed of light to be approximately 2x108 m/s, which is in the right ballpark compared to modern measurements of 3x108 m/s. (I'm not sure whether the fairly large experimental error was mainly due to imprecise knowledge of the radius of the earth's orbit or limitations in the reliability of pendulum clocks.)
Light can travel through a vacuum.
Many people are confused by the relationship between sound and light. Although we use different organs to sense them, there are some similarities. For instance, both light and sound are typically emitted in all directions by their sources. Musicians even use visual metaphors like "tone color," or "a bright timbre" to describe sound. One way to see that they are clearly different phenomena is to note their very different velocities. Sure, both are pretty fast compared to a flying arrow or a galloping horse, but as we have seen, the speed of light is so great as to appear instantaneous in most situations. The speed of sound, however, can easily be observed just by watching a group of schoolchildren a hundred feet away as they clap their hands to a song. There is an obvious delay between when you see their palms come together and when you hear the clap.
The fundamental distinction between sound and light is that sound is an oscillation in air pressure, so it requires air (or some other medium such as water) in which to travel. Today, we know that outer space is a vacuum, so the fact that we get light from the sun, moon and stars clearly shows that air is not necessary for the propagation of light.
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