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) A triple slit.

Suppose we replace a double slit with a triple slit, (a). We can think of this as a third repetition of the structures that were present in the double slit. Will this device be an improvement over the double slit for any practical reasons?

(b) There is a bright central maximum.

(c) At this point just off the central maximum, the path lengths traveled by the three waves have changed.

The answer is yes, as can be shown using figures (b) and (c). For ease of visualization, I have violated our usual rule of only considering points very far from the diffracting object. The scale of the drawing is such that a wavelengths is one cm. In (b), all three waves travel an integer number of wavelengths to reach the same point, so there is a bright central spot, as we would expect from our experience with the double slit. In figure (c), we show the path lengths to a new point. This point is farther from slit A by a quarter of a wavelength, and correspondingly closer to slit C. The distance from slit B has hardly changed at all. Because the paths lengths traveled from slits A and C differ from half a wavelength, there will be perfect destructive interference between these two waves. There is still some uncanceled wave intensity because of slit B, but the amplitude will be three times less than in figure (b), resulting in a factor of 9 decrease in brightness. Thus, by moving off to the right a little, we have gone from the bright central maximum to a point that is quite dark.

Now let's compare with what would have happened if slit C had been covered, creating a plain old double slit. The waves coming from slits A and B would have been out of phase by 0.23 wavelengths, but this would not have caused very severe interference. The point in figure (c) would have been quite brightly lit up.

(d) A double-slit diffraction pattern (top), and a pattern made by five slits (bottom).. (Photo by the author.)

To summarize, we have found that adding a third slit narrows down the central fringe dramatically. The same is true for all the other fringes as well, and since the same amount of energy is concentrated in narrower diffraction fringes, each fringe is brighter and easier to see, (d).

This is an example of a more general fact about diffraction: if some feature of the diffracting object is repeated, the locations of the maxima and minima are unchanged, but they become narrower.

Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, a diffracting object with thousands of slits would produce extremely narrow fringes. Such an object is called a diffraction grating.

Last Update: 2009-06-21