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....

Scaling of Diffraction

This chapter has "optics" in its title, so it is nominally about light, but we started out with an example involving water waves. Water waves are certainly easier to visualize, but is this a legitimate comparison? In fact the analogy works quite well, despite the fact that a light wave has a wavelength about a million times shorter. This is because diffraction effects scale uniformly. That is, if we enlarge or reduce the whole diffraction situation by the same factor, including both the wavelengths and the sizes of the obstacles the wave encounters, the result is still a valid solution.

This is unusually simple behavior! In the first book of this series we saw many examples of more complex scaling, such as the impossibility of bacteria the size of dogs, or the need for an elephant to eliminate heat through its ears because of its small surface-to-volume ratio, whereas a tiny shrew's life-style centers around conserving its body heat.

Of course water waves and light waves differ in many ways, not just in scale, but the general facts you will learn about diffraction are applicable to all waves. In some ways it might have been more appropriate to insert this chapter at the end of book 3, Vibrations and Waves, but many of the important applications are to light waves, and you would probably have found these much more difficult without any background in optics.

Another way of stating the simple scaling behavior of diffraction is that the diffraction angles we get depend only on the unitless ratio λ/d, where λ is the wavelength of the wave and d is some dimension of the diffracting objects, e.g. the center-to-center spacing between the slits in figure (a). If, for instance, we scale up both λ and d by a factor of 37, the ratio λ/d will be unchanged.

Last Update: 2010-11-11