Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
College Physics 2e

27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference

College Physics 2e27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the wave character of light.
  • Identify the changes when light enters a medium.

We know that visible light is the type of electromagnetic wave to which our eyes respond. Like all other electromagnetic waves, it obeys the equation

c = f λ , c = f λ ,

where c=3×108m/sc=3×108m/s is the speed of light in vacuum, ff is the frequency of the electromagnetic waves, and λλ is its wavelength. The range of visible wavelengths is approximately 380 to 760 nm. As is true for all waves, light travels in straight lines and acts like a ray when it interacts with objects several times as large as its wavelength. However, when it interacts with smaller objects, it displays its wave characteristics prominently. Interference is the hallmark of a wave, and in Figure 27.3 both the ray and wave characteristics of light can be seen. The laser beam emitted by the observatory epitomizes a ray, traveling in a straight line. However, passing a pure-wavelength beam through vertical slits with a size close to the wavelength of the beam reveals the wave character of light, as the beam spreads out horizontally into a pattern of bright and dark regions caused by systematic constructive and destructive interference. Rather than spreading out, a ray would continue traveling straight ahead after passing through slits.

Making Connections: Waves

The most certain indication of a wave is interference. This wave characteristic is most prominent when the wave interacts with an object that is not large compared with the wavelength. Interference is observed for water waves, sound waves, light waves, and (as we will see in Special Relativity) for matter waves, such as electrons scattered from a crystal.

Part a of the figure shows a thin bright orange laser beam emitted from an observatory traveling in a straight line up into a starry sky. Part b of the figure shows a horizontal pattern of orange red spots produced when a laser beam has passed through a grid of slits. The central spot is the brightest and the spots get dimmer as you move away from the center..
Figure 27.3 (a) The laser beam emitted by an observatory acts like a ray, traveling in a straight line. This laser beam is from the Paranal Observatory of the European Southern Observatory. (credit: Yuri Beletsky, European Southern Observatory) (b) A laser beam passing through a grid of vertical slits produces an interference pattern—characteristic of a wave. (credit: Shim'on and Slava Rybka, Wikimedia Commons)

Light has wave characteristics in various media as well as in a vacuum. When light goes from a vacuum to some medium, like water, its speed and wavelength change, but its frequency ff remains the same. (We can think of light as a forced oscillation that must have the frequency of the original source.) The speed of light in a medium is v=c/nv=c/n, where nn is its index of refraction. If we divide both sides of equation c=fλc=fλ by nn, we get c/n=v=fλ/nc/n=v=fλ/n. This implies that v=fλnv=fλn, where λnλn is the wavelength in a medium and that

λ n = λ n , λ n = λ n ,

where λλ is the wavelength in vacuum and nn is the medium’s index of refraction. Therefore, the wavelength of light is smaller in any medium than it is in vacuum. In water, for example, which has n=1.333n=1.333, the range of visible wavelengths is (380nm)/1.333(380nm)/1.333 to (760nm)/1.333(760nm)/1.333, or λ n=285to570nmλ n=285to570nm. Although wavelengths change while traveling from one medium to another, colors do not, since colors are associated with frequency.

Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information Citation information

© Jan 19, 2024 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.