Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: light from The Penguin Dictionary of Science

Electromagnetic radiation from the region of the ➤electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye (a wavelength of about 380 to 780 nm). The term ‘light’ is sometimes used to refer to a wider range of electromagnetic radiation, with the visible range referred to as ‘visible light’. The speed of propagation is constant throughout the electromagnetic spectrum (➤speed of light). Being electromagnetic radiation, light can be diffracted, reflected and refracted. It consists of a stream of photons, each carrying an energy E equal to hf, where h is the ➤Planck constant and f is the frequency of the light. ➤➤➤colour; colour vision.


Summary Article: light
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

visible electromagnetic radiation. Of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the human eye is sensitive to only a tiny part, the part that is called light. The wavelengths of visible light range from about 350 or 400 nm to about 750 or 800 nm. The term “light” is often extended to adjacent wavelength ranges that the eye cannot detect—to infrared radiation, which has a frequency less than that of visible light, and to ultraviolet radiation and black light, which have a frequency greater than that of visible light.

If white light, which contains all visible wavelengths, is separated, or dispersed, into a spectrum, each wavelength is seen to correspond to a different color. Light that is all of the same wavelength and phase (all the waves are in step with one another) is called “coherent”; one of the most important modern applications of light has been the development of a source of coherent light—the laser.

The Nature of Light

The scientific study of the behavior of light is called optics and covers reflection of light by a mirror or other object, refraction by a lens or prism, diffraction of light as it passes by the edge of an opaque object, and interference patterns resulting from diffraction. Also studied is the polarization of light. Any successful theory of the nature of light must be able to explain these and other optical phenomena.

The Wave, Particle, and Electromagnetic Theories of Light

The earliest scientific theories of the nature of light were proposed around the end of the 17th cent. In 1690, Christian Huygens proposed a theory that explained light as a wave phenomenon. However, a rival theory was offered by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704. Newton, who had discovered the visible spectrum in 1666, held that light is composed of tiny particles, or corpuscles, emitted by luminous bodies. By combining this corpuscular theory with his laws of mechanics, he was able to explain many optical phenomena.

For more than 100 years, Newton's corpuscular theory of light was favored over the wave theory, partly because of Newton's great prestige and partly because not enough experimental evidence existed to provide an adequate basis of comparison between the two theories. Finally, important experiments were done on the diffraction and interference of light by Thomas Young (1801) and A. J. Fresnel (1814–15) that could only be interpreted in terms of the wave theory. The polarization of light was still another phenomenon that could only be explained by the wave theory. Thus, in the 19th cent. the wave theory became the dominant theory of the nature of light.

The wave theory received additional support from the electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell (1864), who showed that electric and magnetic fields were propagated together and that their speed was identical with the speed of light. It thus became clear that visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, constituting only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Maxwell's theory was confirmed experimentally with the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz in 1886.

Modern Theory of the Nature of Light

With the acceptance of the electromagnetic theory of light, only two general problems remained. One of these was that of the luminiferous ether, a hypothetical medium suggested as the carrier of light waves, just as air or water carries sound waves. The ether was assumed to have some very unusual properties, e.g., being massless but having high elasticity. A number of experiments performed to give evidence of the ether, most notably by A. A. Michelson in 1881 and by Michelson and E. W. Morley in 1887, failed to support the ether hypothesis. With the publication of the special theory of relativity in 1905 by Albert Einstein, the ether was shown to be unnecessary to the electromagnetic theory.

The second main problem, and the more serious of the two, was the explanation of various phenomena, such as the photoelectric effect, that involved the interaction of light with matter. Again the solution to the problem was proposed by Einstein, also in 1905. Einstein extended the quantum theory of thermal radiation proposed by Max Planck in 1900 to cover not only vibrations of the source of radiation but also vibrations of the radiation itself. He thus suggested that light, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation as well, travel as tiny bundles of energy called light quanta, or photons. The energy of each photon is directly proportional to its frequency.

With the development of the quantum theory of atomic and molecular structure by Niels Bohr and others, it became apparent that light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation are emitted and absorbed in connection with energy transitions of the particles of the substance radiating or absorbing the light. In these processes, the quantum, or particle, nature of light is more important than its wave nature. When the transmission of light is under consideration, however, the wave nature dominates over the particle nature. In 1924, Louis de Broglie showed that an analogous picture holds for particle behavior, with moving particles having certain wavelike properties that govern their motion, so that there exists a complementarity between particles and waves known as particle-wave duality (see also complementarity principle). The quantum theory of light has successfully explained all aspects of the behavior of light.

The Speed of Light

An important question in the history of the study of light has been the determination of its speed and of the relationship of this speed to other physical phenomena. At one time it was thought that light travels with infinite speed—i.e., it is propagated instantaneously from its source to an observer. Olaus Rømer showed that it was finite, however, and in 1675 estimated its value from differences in the time of eclipse of certain of Jupiter's satellites when observed from different points in the earth's orbit. More accurate measurements were made during the 19th cent. by A. H. L. Fizeau (1849), using a toothed wheel to interrupt the light, and by J. B. L. Foucault (1850), using a rotating mirror. The most accurate measurements of this type were made by Michelson. Modern electronic methods have improved this accuracy, yielding a value of 2.99792458 × 108 m (c.186,000 mi) per sec for the speed of light in a vacuum, and less for its speed in other media. The theory of relativity predicts that the speed of light in a vacuum is the limiting velocity for material particles; no particle can be accelerated from rest to the speed of light, although it may approach it very closely. Particles moving at less than the speed of light in a vacuum but greater than that of light in some other medium will emit a faint blue light known as Cherenkov radiation when they pass through the other medium. This phenomenon has been used in various applications involving elementary particles.

Luminous and Illuminated Bodies

In general, vision is due to the stimulation of the optic nerves in the eye by light either directly from its source or indirectly after reflection from other objects. A luminous body, such as the sun, another star, or a light bulb, is thus distinguished from an illuminated body, such as the moon and most of the other objects one sees. The amount and type of light given off by a luminous body or reflected by an illuminated body is of concern to the branch of physics known as photometry (see also lighting). Illuminated bodies not only reflect light but sometimes also transmit it. Transparent objects, such as glass, air, and some liquids, allow light to pass through them. Translucent objects, such as tissue paper and certain types of glass, also allow light to pass through them but diffuse (scatter) it in the process, so that an observer cannot see a clear image of whatever lies on the other side of the object. Opaque objects do not allow light to pass through them at all. Some transparent and translucent objects allow only light of certain wavelengths to pass through them and thus appear colored. The colors of opaque objects are caused by selective reflection of certain wavelengths and absorption of others.

Bibliography
  • See Bragg, W. L. , The Universe of Light (1959);.
  • Rublowsky, J. , Light (1964);.
  • Haken, H. , Light (1981).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles


Full text Article Light
The Encyclopedia of Ecology and Environmental Management, Blackwell Science

Electromagnetic Radiation in the wavelength range 400–700 nm, where the human eye is most sensitive. Often the adjacent wavelength...

Full text Article Light
Science in the Early Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia

Light as we know it—visible light—is only one part of the broader phenomenon of electromagnetic radiation. Although other kinds of...

Full text Article light
Philip's Encyclopedia

Electromagnetic radiation to which the human eye is sensitive. Visible light is in the wavelength range from c .400nm (violet) to 770nm...

See more from Credo