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....

Light as a Particle

In recent decades, a huge hole in the ozone layer has spread out from Antarctica.

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education. Albert Einstein

Radioactivity is random, but do the laws of physics exhibit randomness in other contexts besides radioactivity? Yes. Radioactive decay was just a good playpen to get us started with concepts of randomness, because all atoms of a given isotope are identical. By stocking the playpen with an unlimited supply of identical atom-toys, nature helped us to realize that their future behavior could be different regardless of their original identicality. We are now ready to leave the playpen, and see how randomness fits into the structure of physics at the most fundamental level.

The laws of physics describe light and matter, and the quantum revolution rewrote both descriptions. Radioactivity was a good example of matter's behaving in a way that was inconsistent with classical physics, but if we want to get under the hood and understand how nonclassical things happen, it will be easier to focus on light rather than matter. A radioactive atom such as uranium-235 is after all an extremely complex system, consisting of 92 protons, 143 neutrons, and 92 electrons. Light, however, can be a simple sine wave.

However successful the classical wave theory of light had been - allowing the creation of radio and radar, for example - it still failed to describe many important phenomena. An example that is currently of great interest is the way the ozone layer protects us from the dangerous short-wavelength ultraviolet part of the sun's spectrum. In the classical description, light is a wave. When a wave passes into and back out of a medium, its frequency is unchanged, and although its wavelength is altered while it is in the medium, it returns to its original value when the wave reemerges. Luckily for us, this is not at all what ultraviolet light does when it passes through the ozone layer, or the layer would offer no protection at all!

Last Update: 2009-06-21