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....

Summary - Wave Optics

Wave optics is a more general theory of light than ray optics. When light interacts with material objects that are much larger then one wavelength of the light, the ray model of light is approximately correct, but in other cases the wave model is required.

Huygens' principle states that, given a wavefront at one moment in time, the future behavior of the wave can be found by breaking the wavefront up into a large number of small, side-by-side wave peaks, each of which then creates a pattern of circular or spherical ripples. As these sets of ripples add together, the wave evolves and moves through space. Since Huygens' principle is a purely geometrical construction, diffraction effects obey a simple scaling rule: the behavior is unchanged if the wavelength and the dimensions of the diffracting objects are both scaled up or down by the same factor. If we wish to predict the angles at which various features of the diffraction pattern radiate out, scaling requires that these angles depend only on the unitless ratio λ/d, where d is the size of some feature of the diffracting object.

Double-slit diffraction is easily analyzed using Huygens' principle if the slits are narrower than one wavelength. We need only construct two sets of ripples, one spreading out from each slit. The angles of the maxima (brightest points in the bright fringes) and minima (darkest points in the dark fringes) are given by the equation

where d is the center-to-center spacing of the slits, and m is an integer at a maximum or an integer plus 1/2 at a minimum.

If some feature of a diffracting object is repeated, the diffraction fringes remain in the same places, but become narrower with each repetition. By repeating a double-slit pattern hundreds or thousands of times, we obtain a diffraction grating.

A single slit can produce diffraction fringes if it is larger than one wavelength. Many practical instances of diffraction can be interpreted as single-slit diffraction, e.g. diffraction in telescopes. The main thing to realize about single-slit diffraction is that it exhibits the same kind of relationship between λ, d, and angles of fringes as in any other type of diffraction.

Last Update: 2010-11-11