Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....


(a) In this view from overhead, a straight, sinusoidal water wave encounters a barrier with two gaps in it. Strong wave vibration occurs at angles X and Z, but there is none at all at angle Y.

Figure (a) shows a typical problem in wave optics, enacted with water waves. It may seem surprising that we don't get a simple pattern like figure (b), but the pattern would only be that simple if the wavelength was hundreds of times shorter than the distance between the gaps in the barrier and the widths of the gaps.

(b) This doesn't happen. Figures (a) and (b) were constructed as collages of uncopyrighted photos from PSSC College Physics. Figure (a), although essentially correct, is a little unrealistic because the waves beyond the barrier would be much weaker.

Wave optics is a broad subject, but this example will help us to pick out a reasonable set of restrictions to make things more manageable:

(1) We restrict ourselves to cases in which a wave travels through a uniform medium, encounters a certain area in which the medium has different properties, and then emerges on the other side into a second uniform region.

(2) We assume that the incoming wave is a nice tidy sine-wave pattern with wavefronts that are lines (or, in three dimensions, planes).

(3) In figure (a) we can see that the wave pattern immediately beyond the barrier is rather complex, but farther on it sorts itself out into a set of wedges separated by gaps in which the water is still. We will restrict ourselves to studying the simpler wave patterns that occur farther away, so that the main question of interest is how intense the outgoing wave is at a given angle.

The kind of phenomenon described by restriction (1) is called diffraction. Diffraction can be defined as the behavior of a wave when it encounters an obstacle or a nonuniformity in its medium. In general, diffraction causes a wave to bend around obstacles and make patterns of strong and weak waves radiating out beyond the obstacle. Understanding diffraction is the central problem of wave optics. If you understand diffraction, even the subset of diffraction problems that fall within restrictions (2) and (3), the rest of wave optics is icing on the cake.

Diffraction can be used to find the structure of an unknown diffracting object: even if the object is too small to study with ordinary imaging, it may be possible to work backward from the diffraction pattern to learn about the object. The structure of a crystal, for example, can be determined from its x-ray diffraction pattern.

Diffraction can also be a bad thing. In a telescope, for example, light waves are diffracted by all the parts of the instrument. This will cause the image of a star to appear fuzzy even when the focus has been adjusted correctly. By understanding diffraction, one can learn how a telescope must be designed in order to reduce this problem - essentially, it should have the biggest possible diameter.

There are two ways in which restriction (2) might commonly be violated. First, the light might be a mixture of wavelengths. If we simply want to observe a diffraction pattern or to use diffraction as a technique for studying the object doing the diffracting (e.g. if the object is too small to see with a microscope), then we can pass the light through a colored filter before diffracting it.

A second issue is that light from sources such as the sun or a lightbulb does not consist of a nice neat plane wave, except over very small regions of space. Different parts of the wave are out of step with each other, and the wave is referred to as incoherent. One way of dealing with this is shown in figure (c). After filtering to select a certain wavelength of red light, we pass the light through a small pinhole. The region of the light that is intercepted by the pinhole is so small that one part of it is not out of step with another. Beyond the pinhole, light spreads out in a spherical wave; this is analogous to what happens when you speak into one end of a paper towel roll and the sound waves spread out in all directions from the other end. By the time the spherical wave gets to the double slit it has spread out and reduced its curvature, so that we can now think of it as a simple plane wave.

(c) A practical setup for observing diffraction of light.

If this seems laborious, you may be relieved to know that modern technology gives us an easier way to produce a single-wavelength, coherent beam of light: the laser.

The parts of the final image on the screen in (c) are called diffraction fringes. The center of each fringe is a point of maximum brightness, and halfway between two fringes is a minimum.

Discussion Questions

A Why would x-rays rather than visible light be used to find the structure of a crystal? Sound waves are used to make images of fetuses in the womb. What would influence the choice of wavelength?

Last Update: 2009-06-21