Were you ever scared of the dark? It's not surprising if you were, or if you still are today, because humans are creatures of the light, deeply programmed through millions of years of history to avoid the dark dangers of the night. Light is vitally important to us, but we don't always take the trouble to understand it. Why does it make some things appear to be different colors from others? Does it travel as particles or as waves? Why does it move so quickly?
When we're very young, we have a very simple idea about light: the world is either light or dark and we can change from one to the other just by flicking a switch on the wall. But we soon learn that light is more complex than this.
Light arrives on our planet after a speedy trip from the Sun, 149 million km (93 million miles away). Light travels at 186,000 miles (300,000 km) per second, so the light you're seeing now was still tucked away in the Sun about eight minutes ago. Put it another way, light takes roughly twice as long to get from the Sun to Earth as it does to make a cup of coffee!
But why does light make this journey at all? As you probably know, the Sun is a nuclear fireball spewing energy in all directions. The light that we see it simply the one part of the energy that the Sun makes that our eyes can detect. When light travels between two places (from the Sun to the Earth or from a flashlight to the sidewalk in front of you on a dark night), energy makes a journey between those two points. The energy travels in the form of waves (similar to the waves on the sea but about 100 million times smaller)—a vibrating pattern of electricity and magnetism that we call electromagnetic energy. If our eyes could see electricity and magnetism, we might see each ray of light as a wave of electricity vibrating in one direction and a wave of magnetism vibrating at right angles to it. These two waves would travel in step and at the speed of light.
For hundreds of years, scientists have argued over whether light is really a wave at all. Back in the 17th century, the brilliant English scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)—one of the first people to study the matter in detail—thought light was a stream of "corpuscles" or particles. But his great rival, a no-less-brilliant Dutchman named Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), was quite adamant that light was made up of waves.
Photo: Isaac Newton argued that light was a stream of particles.
Thus began a controversy that still rumbles on today—and it's easy to see why. In some ways, light behaves just like a wave: light reflects off a mirror, for example, in exactly the same way that waves crashing in from the sea "reflect" off sea walls and go back out again. In other ways, light behaves much more like a stream of particles—like bullets firing in rapid succession from a gun. During the 20th century, physicists came to believe that light could be both a particle and a wave at the same time. (This idea sounds quite simple, but goes by the rather complex name of wave-particle duality.)
The real answer to this problem is more a matter of philosophy and psychology than physics. Our understanding of the world is based on the way our eyes and brains interpret it. Sometimes it seems to us that light is behaving like a wave; sometimes it seems like light is a stream of particles. We have two mental pigeonholes and light doesn't quite fit into either of them. It's like the glass slipper that doesn't fit either of the ugly sisters (particle or wave). We can pretend it nearly fits both of them, some of the time. But in truth, light is simply what it is—a form of energy that doesn't neatly match our mental scheme of how things should be. One day, someone will come up with a better way of describing and explaining it that makes perfect sense in all situations.
Light waves (let's assume they are indeed waves for now) behave in four particularly interesting and useful ways that we describe as reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference.
The most obvious thing about light is that it will reflect off things. The only reason we can see the things around us is that light, either from the Sun or from something like an electric lamp here on Earth, reflects off them into our eyes. Cut off the source of the light or stop it from reaching your eyes and those objects disappear. They don't cease to exist, but you can no longer see them.
Photo: Now that's what I call a mirror! A solar mirror used to gather and focus energy from the Sun.
Reflection can happen in two quite different ways. If you have a smooth, highly polished surface and you shine a narrow beam of light at it, you get a narrow beam of light reflected back off it. This is called specular reflection and it's what happens if you shine a flashlight or laser into a mirror: you get a well-defined beam of light bouncing back towards you. Most objects aren't smooth and highly polished: they're quite rough. So, when you shine light onto them, it's scattered all over the place. This is called diffuse reflection and it's how we see most objects around us as they scatter the light falling on them.
If you can see your face in something, it's specular reflection; if you can't see your face, it's diffuse reflection. Polish up a teaspoon and you can see your face quite clearly. But if the spoon is dirty, all the bits of dirt and dust are scattering light in all directions and your face disappears.
Light waves travel in straight lines through empty space (a vacuum), but more interesting things happen to them when they travel through other materials—especially when they move from one material to another. That's not unusual: we do the same thing ourselves.
Have you noticed how your body slows down when you try to walk through water? You go racing down the beach at top speed but, as soon as you hit the sea, you slow right down. No matter how hard you try, you cannot run as quickly through water as through air. The dense liquid is harder to push out of the way, so it slows you down. Exactly the same thing happens to light if you shine it into water, glass, plastic or another more dense material: it slows down quite dramatically. This tends to make light waves bend—something we usually call refraction.
Photo: Laser beams bending (refracting) through a crystal.
You've probably noticed that water can bend light. You can see this for yourself by putting a straw in a glass of water. Notice how the straw appears to kink at the point where the water meets the air above it. The bending happens not in the water itself but at the junction of the air and the water. You can see the same thing happening in this photo of laser light beams shining between two crystals. As the beams cross the junction, they bend quite noticeably.
Why does this happen? You may have learned that the speed of light is always the same, but that's only true when light travels in a vacuum. In fact, light travels more slowly in some materials than others. It goes more slowly in water than in air. Or, to put it another way, light slows down when it moves from air to water and it speeds up when it moves from water to air. This is what causes the straw to look bent. Let's look into this a bit more closely.
Imagine a light ray zooming along through the air at an angle to some water. Now imagine that the light ray is actually a line of people swimming along in formation, side-by-side, through the air. The swimmers on one side are going to enter the water more quickly than the swimmers on the other side and, as they do so, they are going to slow down—because people move more slowly in water than in air. That means the whole line is going to start slowing down, beginning with the swimmers at one side and ending with the swimmers on the other side some time later. That's going to cause the entire line to bend at an angle. This is exactly how light behaves when it enters water—and why water makes a straw look bent.
Refraction is amazingly useful. If you wear eyeglasses, you probably know that the lenses they contain are curved-shape pieces of glass or plastic that bend (refract) the light from the things you're looking at. Bending the light makes it seem to come from nearer or further away (depending on the type of lenses you have), which corrects the problem with your sight. To put it another way, your eyeglasses fix your vision by slowing down incoming light so it shifts direction slightly.
Although light normally travels in straight lines, you can make it bend round corners by shooting it down thin glass or plastic pipes called fiber-optic cables. Reflection and refraction are at work inside these "light pipes" to make rays of light follow an unusual path they wouldn't normally take.
Photo: A rainbow splits sunlight ("white" light) into its component colours because it bends different colors (wavelengths of light) by different amounts.
Shorter wavelengths are bent more than longer wavelengths, so blue light is bent more than red. That's why blue is always on the inside of a rainbow and red is on the outside.
Colour is one of the strangest things about light. Here's one obvious riddle: if we see things because sunlight is reflected off them, how come everything isn't the same colour? Why isn't everything the colour of sunlight? You probably know the answer to this already. Sunlight isn't light of just one colour—it's what we call white light, made up of all the different colours mixed together. We know this because we can see rainbows, those colourful curves that appear in the sky when droplets of water split sunlight into its component colours by refracting (bending) different colours of light by different amounts.
Why does a tomato look red? When sunlight shines on a tomato, the red part of the sunlight is reflected back again off the tomato's skin, while all the other colours of lights are absorbed (soaked into) the tomato, so you don't see them. That's just as true of a blue book, which reflects only the blue part of sunlight but absorbs light of other colours.
Why does a tomato appear red and not blue or green? Think back to how atoms make light. When sunlight falls on a tomato, the incoming light energy excites atoms in the tomato's skin. Electrons are promoted to higher energy levels to capture the energy, but soon fall back down again. As they do so, they give off photons of new light—and that just happens to correspond to the kind of light that our eyes see as red. Tomatoes, in other words, are like precise optical machines programmed to produce photons of red light when sunlight falls on them.
If you shone light of other colors on tomatoes, what would happen? Let's suppose you made some green light by passing sunlight through a piece of green plastic (something we call a filter). If you shone this on a red tomato, the tomato would appear black. That's because tomatoes absorb green light. There is simply no red light for them to reflect.
Photo: A tomato reflects the red part of sunlight and absorbs all the other colours.
Many of the things we think are true of the world turn out to be true only of ourselves. We think tomatoes are red, but in fact we only see them that way. If our eyes were built differently, we might see the light photons that tomatoes produce as light of a totally different colour. And there's no real way any of us can be sure that what we see as "red" is the same as what anyone else sees as red: there's no way to prove that my red is the same as yours. Some of the most interesting aspects of the things we see come down to the psychology of perception (how our eyes see the world and how our brains make sense of that), not the physics of light. Colour blindness and optical illusions are two examples of this.
Understanding light is a brilliant example of what being a scientist is all about. Science isn't like other subjects. It's not like history (a collection of facts about past events) or law (the rights and wrongs of how people behave). It's an entirely different way of thinking about the world and making sense of it. When you understand the science of light, you feel you've turned part of the world inside out—you're looking from the inside, seeing everything in a totally new way, and understanding for the first time why it all makes sense. Science can throw a completely different light on the world—it can even throw light on light itself!