In 1637 Descartes gave the corpuscular model of light and derived Snell’s law. It explained the laws of reflection and refraction of light at an interface. The corpuscular model predicted that if the ray of light (on refraction) bends towards the normal then the speed of light would be greater in the second medium. This corpuscular model of light was further developed by Isaac Newton in his famous book entitled OPTICKS and because of the tremendous popularity of this book, the corpuscular model is very often attributed to Newton.

In 1678, the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens put forward the wave theory of light – it is this wave model of light that we will discuss in this chapter. As we will see, the wave model could satisfactorily explain the phenomena of reflection and refraction; however, it predicted that on refraction if the wave bends towards the normal then the speed of light would be less in the second medium. This is in contradiction to the prediction made by using the corpuscular model of light. It was much later confirmed by experiments where it was shown that the speed of light in water is less than the speed in air confirming the prediction of the wave model; Foucault carried out this experiment in 1850. The wave theory was not readily accepted primarily because of Newton’s authority and also because light could travel through vacuum and it was felt that a wave would always require a medium to propagate from one point to the other. However, when Thomas Young performed his famous interference experiment in 1801, it was firmly established that light is indeed a wave phenomenon. The wavelength of visible light was measured and found to be extremely small; for example, the wavelength of yellow light is about 0.6 μm. Because of the smallness of the wavelength of visible light (in comparison to the dimensions of typical mirrors and lenses), light can be assumed to approximately travel in straight lines. This is the field of geometrical optics, which we had discussed in the previous chapter. Indeed, the branch of optics in which one completely neglects the finiteness of the wavelength is called geometrical optics and a ray is defined as the path of energy propagation in the limit of wavelength tending to zero.

After the interference experiment of Young in 1801, for the next 40 years or so, many experiments were carried out involving the interference and diffraction of lightwaves; these experiments could only be satisfactorily explained by assuming a wave model of light. Thus, around the middle of the nineteenth century, the wave theory seemed to be very well established. The only major difficulty was that since it was thought that a wave required a medium for its propagation, how could light waves propagate through vacuum. This was explained when Maxwell put forward his famous electromagnetic theory of light. Maxwell had developed a set of equations describing the laws of electricity and magnetism and using these equations he derived what is known as the wave equation from which he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves*. From the wave equation, Maxwell could calculate the speed of electromagnetic waves in free space and he found that the theoretical value was very close to the measured value of speed of light. From this, he propounded that light must be an electromagnetic wave. Thus, according to Maxwell, light waves are associated with changing electric and magnetic fields; changing electric field produces a time and space varying magnetic field and a changing magnetic field produces a time and space varying electric field. The changing electric and magnetic fields result in the propagation of electromagnetic waves (or light waves) even in vacuum.

Maxwell had predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves around 1855; it was much later (around 1890) that Heinrich Hertz produced radiowaves in the laboratory. J.C. Bose and G. Marconi made practical applications of the Hertzian waves.

Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)

Dutch physicist, astronomer, mathematician and the founder of the wave theory of light. His book, Treatise on light, makes fascinating reading even today. He brilliantly explained the double refraction shown by the mineral calcite in this work in addition to reflection and refraction. He was the first to analyse circular and simple harmonic motion and designed and built improved clocks and telescopes. He discovered the true geometry of Saturn’s rings.


We would first define a wavefront: when we drop a small stone on a calm pool of water, waves spread out from the point of impact. Every point on the surface starts oscillating with time. At any instant, a photograph of the surface would show circular rings on which the disturbance is maximum. Clearly, all points on such a circle are oscillating in phase because they are at the same distance from the source. Such a locus of points, which oscillate in phase is called a wavefront ; thus a wavefront is defined as a surface of constant phase. The speed with which the wavefront moves outwards from the source is called the speed of the wave. The energy of the wave travels in a direction perpendicular to the wavefront. If we have a point source emitting waves uniformly in all directions, then the locus of points which have the same amplitude and vibrate in the same phase are spheres and we have what is known as a spherical wave. At a large distance from the source, a small portion of the sphere can be considered as a plane and we have what is known as a plane wave.

Now, if we know the shape of the wavefront at t = 0, then Huygens principle allows us to determine the shape of the wavefront at a later time t. Thus, Huygens principle is essentially a geometrical construction, which given the shape of the wafefront at any time allows us to determine the shape of the wavefront at a later time. Let us consider a diverging wave and let F1F2 represent a portion of the spherical wavefront at t = 0.

Now, according to Huygens principle, each point of the wavefront is the source of a secondary disturbance and the wavelets emanating from these points spread out in all directions with the speed of the wave. These wavelets emanating from the wavefront are usually referred to as secondary wavelets and if we draw a common tangent to all these spheres, we obtain the new position of the wavefront at a later time.

Thus, if we wish to determine the shape of the wavefront at t = t, we draw spheres of radius vt from each point on the spherical wavefront where v represents the speed of the waves in the medium. If we now draw a common tangent to all these spheres, we obtain the new position of the wavefront at t = t. The new wavefront shown as G1G2 is again spherical with point O as the centre.

The above model has one shortcoming: we also have a backwave which is shown as D1D2 in Fig. 10.2. Huygens argued that the amplitude of the secondary wavelets is maximum in the forward direction and zero in the backward direction; by making this adhoc assumption, Huygens could explain the absence of the backwave. However, this adhoc assumption is not satisfactory and the absence of the backwave is really justified from more rigorous wave theory. In a similar manner, we can use Huygens principle to determine the shape of the wavefront for a plane wave propagating through a medium.

The doppler effect

We should mention here that one should be careful in constructing the wavefronts if the source (or the observer) is moving. For example, if there is no medium and the source moves away from the observer, then later wavefronts have to travel a greater distance to reach the observer and hence take a longer time. The time taken between the arrival of two successive wavefronts is hence longer at the observer than it is at the source. Thus, when the source moves away from the observer the frequency as measured by the source will be smaller. This is known as the Doppler effect. Astronomers call the increase in wavelength due to doppler effect as red shift since a wavelength in the middle of the visible region of the spectrum moves towards the red end of the spectrum. When waves are received from a source moving towards the observer, there is an apparent decrease in wavelength, this is referred to as blue shift.


We will now discuss interference using light waves. If we use two sodium lamps illuminating two pinholes we will not observe any interference fringes. This is because of the fact that the light wave emitted from an ordinary source (like a sodium lamp) undergoes abrupt phase changes in times of the order of 10–10 seconds. Thus the light waves coming out from two independent sources of light will not have any fixed phase relationship and would be incoherent, when this happens, as discussed in the previous section, the intensities on the screen will add up.

The British physicist Thomas Young used an ingenious technique to “lock” the phases of the waves emanating from S1 and S2. He made two pinholes S1 and S2 (very close to each other) on an opaque screen. These were illuminated by another pinholes that was in turn, lit by a bright source. Light waves spread out from S and fall on both S1 and S2.

S1 and S2 then behave like two coherent sources because light waves coming out from S1 and S2 are derived from the same original source and any abrupt phase change in S will manifest in exactly similar phase changes in the light coming out from S1 and S2. Thus, the two sources S1 and S2 will be locked in phase; i.e., they will be coherent like the two vibrating needle in our water wave example.

Thomas Young (1773 – 1829)

He is English physicist, physician and Egyptologist. Young worked on a wide variety of scientific problems, ranging from the structure of the eye and the mechanism of vision to the decipherment of the Rosetta stone. He revived the wave theory of light and recognised that interference phenomena provide proof of the wave properties of light.


If we look clearly at the shadow cast by an opaque object, close to the region of geometrical shadow, there are alternate dark and bright regions just like in interference. This happens due to the phenomenon of diffraction. Diffraction is a general characteristic exhibited by all types of waves, be it sound waves, light waves, water waves or matter waves. Since the wavelength of light is much smaller than the dimensions of most obstacles; we do not encounter diffraction effects of light in everyday observations. However, the finite resolution of our eye or of optical instruments such as telescopes or microscopes is limited due to the phenomenon of diffraction. Indeed the colours that you see when a CD is viewed is due to diffraction effects. We will now discuss the phenomenon of diffraction.

The single slit

In the discussion of Young’s experiment, we stated that a single narrow slit acts as a new source from which light spreads out. Even before Young, early experimenters – including Newton – had noticed that light spreads out from narrow holes and slits. It seems to turn around corners and enter regions where we would expect a shadow. These effects, known as diffraction, can only be properly understood using wave ideas. After all, you are hardly surprised to hear sound waves from someone talking around a corner!

When the double slit in Young’s experiment is replaced by a single narrow slit (illuminated by a monochromatic source), a broad pattern with a central bright region is seen. On both sides, there are alternate dark and bright regions, the intensity becoming weaker away from the centre. Shows a parallel beam of light falling normally on a single slit LN of width a. The diffracted light goes on to meet a screen. The midpoint of the slit is M. A straight line through M perpendicular to the slit plane meets the screen at C. We want the intensity at any point P on the screen. As before, straight lines joining P to the different points L,M,N, etc., can be treated as parallel, making an angle q with the normal MC.

The basic idea is to divide the slit into much smaller parts, and add their contributions at P with the proper phase differences. We are treating different parts of the wavefront at the slit as secondary sources. Because the incoming wavefront is parallel to the plane of the slit, these sources are in phase. The path difference NP – LP between the two edges of the slit can be calculated exactly as for Young’s experiment.

Seeing the single slit diffraction pattern

It is surprisingly easy to see the single-slit diffraction pattern for oneself. The equipment needed can be found in most homes –– two razor blades and one clear glass electric bulb preferably with a straight filament. One has to hold the two blades so that the edges are parallel and have a narrow slit in between. This is easily done with the thumb and forefingers.

Keep the slit parallel to the filament, right in front of the eye. Use spectacles if you normally do. With slight adjustment of the width of the slit and the parallelism of the edges, the pattern should be seen with its bright and dark bands. Since the position of all the bands (except the central one) depends on wavelength, they will show some colours. Using a filter for red or blue will make the fringes clearer. With both filters available, the wider fringes for red compared to blue can be seen.  

In this experiment, the filament plays the role of the first slit S. The lens of the eye focuses the pattern on the screen (the retina of the eye). With some effort, one can cut a double slit in an aluminium foil with a blade. The bulb filament can be viewed as before to repeat Young’s experiment. In daytime, there is another suitable bright source subtending a small angle at the eye. This is the reflection of the Sun in any shiny convex surface (e.g., a cycle bell). Do not try direct sunlight – it can damage the eye and will not give fringes anyway as the Sun subtends an angle of (1/2)°.

In interference and diffraction, light energy is redistributed. If it reduces in one region, producing a dark fringe, it increases in another region, producing a bright fringe. There is no gain or loss of energy, which is consistent with the principle of conservation of energy.

Resolving power of optical instruments

The angular resolution of the telescope is determined by the objective of the telescope. The stars which are not resolved in the image produced by the objective cannot be resolved by any further magnification produced by the eyepiece. The primary purpose of the eyepiece is to provide magnification of the image produced by the objective.

Consider a parallel beam of light falling on a convex lens. If the lens is well corrected for aberrations, then geometrical optics tells us that the beam will get focused to a point. However, because of diffraction, the beam instead of getting focused to a point gets focused to a spot of finite area. In this case the effects due to diffraction can be taken into account by considering a plane wave incident on a circular aperture followed by a convex lens. The analysis of the corresponding diffraction pattern is quite involved; however, in principle, it is similar to the analysis carried out to obtain the single-slit diffraction pattern. Taking into account the effects due to diffraction, the pattern on the focal plane would consist of a central bright region surrounded by concentric dark and bright rings.


You can estimate the resolving power of your eye with a simple experiment. Make black stripes of equal width separated by white stripes; see figure here. All the black stripes should be of equal width, while the width of the intermediate white stripes should increase as you go from the left to the right. For example, let all black stripes have a width of 5 mm. Let the width of the first two white stripes be 0.5 mm each, the next two white stripes be 1 mm each, the next two 1.5 mm each, etc. Paste this pattern on a wall in a room or laboratory, at the height of your eye.

Now watch the pattern, preferably with one eye. By moving away or closer to the wall, find the position where you can just see some two black stripes as separate stripes. All the black stripes to the left of this stripe would merge into one another and would not be distinguishable. On the other hand, the black stripes to the right of this would be more and more clearly visible. Note the width d of the white stripe which separates the two regions, and measure the distance D of the wall from your eye. Then d/D is the resolution of your eye. You have watched specks of dust floating in air in a sunbeam entering through your window. Find the distance (of a speck) which you can clearly see and distinguish from a neighbouring speck. Knowing the resolution of your eye and the distance of the speck, estimate the size of the speck of dust.


Consider holding a long string that is held horizontally, the other end of which is assumed to be fixed. If we move the end of the string up and down in a periodic manner, we will generate a wave propagating in the +x direction. Such a wave could be described by the following equation Light waves are transverse in nature; i.e., the electric field associated with a propagating light wave is always at right angles to the direction of propagation of the wave. This can be easily demonstrated using a simple polaroid. You must have seen thin plastic like sheets, which are called polaroids. A polaroid consists of long chain molecules aligned in a particular direction. The electric vectors (associated with the propagating light wave) along the direction of the aligned molecules get absorbed. Thus, if an unpolarised light wave is incident on such a polaroid then the light wave will get linearly polarised with the electric vector oscillating along a direction perpendicular to the aligned molecules; this direction is known as the pass-axis of the polaroid.

Polarisation by scattering

The light from a clear blue portion of the sky shows a rise and fall of intensity when viewed through a polaroid which is rotated. This is nothing but sunlight, which has changed its direction (having been scattered) on encountering the molecules of the earth’s atmosphere. The incident sunlight is unpolarised. The dots stand for polarization perpendicular to the plane of the figure. The double arrows show polarisation in the plane of the figure. (There is no phase relation between these two in unpolarised light). Under the influence of the electric field of the incident wave the electrons in the molecules acquire components of motion in both these directions. We have drawn an observer looking at 90° to the direction of the sun. Clearly, charges accelerating parallel to the double arrows do not radiate energy towards this observer since their acceleration has no transverse component. The radiation scattered by the molecule is therefore represented by dots. It is polarized perpendicular to the plane of the figure. This explains the polarisation of scattered light from the sky.


When light is incident on an interface of two media, it is observed that some part of it gets reflected and some part gets transmitted. Consider a related question: Is it possible that under some conditions a monochromatic beam of light incident on a surface (which is normally reflective) gets completely transmitted with no reflection? To your surprise, the answer is yes.

Let us try a simple experiment and check what happens. Arrange a laser, a good polariser, a prism and screen as shown in the figure here. Let the light emitted by the laser source pass through the polariser and be incident on the surface of the prism at the Brewster’s angle of incidence iB. Now rotate the polariser carefully and you will observe that for a specific alignment of the polariser, the light incident on the prism is completely transmitted and no light is reflected from the surface of the prism. The reflected spot will completely vanish.

Polarisation by reflection

Light reflected from a transparent medium, say, water. As before, the dots and arrows indicate that both polarisations are present in the incident and refracted waves. We have drawn a situation in which the reflected wave travels at right angles to the refracted wave. The oscillating electrons in the water produce the reflected wave. These move in the two directions transverse to the radiation from wave in the medium, i.e., the refracted wave. The arrows are parallel to the direction of the reflected wave. Motion in this direction does not contribute to the reflected wave. As the figure shows, the reflected light is therefore linearly polarised perpendicular to the plane of the figure (represented by dots). This can be checked by looking at the reflected light through an analyser. The transmitted intensity will be zero when the axis of the analyser is in the plane of the figure, i.e., the plane of incidence.

When unpolarised light is incident on the boundary between two transparent media, the reflected light is polarised with its electric vector perpendicular to the plane of incidence when the refracted and reflected rays make a right angle with each other. Thus we have seen that when reflected wave is perpendicular to the refracted wave, the reflected wave is a totally polarised wave. The angle of incidence in this case is called Brewster’s angle and is denoted by iB. We can see that iB is related to the efractive index of the denser medium.

For simplicity, we have discussed scattering of light by 90°, and reflection at the Brewster angle. In this special situation, one of the two perpendicular components of the electric field is zero. At other angles, both components are present but one is stronger than the other. There is no stable phase relationship between the two perpendicular components since these are derived from two perpendicular components of an unpolarised beam. When such light is viewed through a rotating analyser, one sees a maximum and a minimum of intensity but not complete darkness. This kind of light is called partially polarised. Let us try to understand the situation. When an unpolarised beam of light is incident at the Brewster’s angle on an interface of two media, only part of light with electric field vector perpendicular to the plane of incidence will be reflected. Now by using a good polariser, if we completely remove all the light with its electric vector perpendicular to the plane of incidence and let this light be incident on the surface of the prism at Brewster’s angle, you will then observe no reflection and there will be total transmission of light.

We began this chapter by pointing out that there are some phenomena which can be explained only by the wave theory. In order to develop a proper understanding, we first described how some phenomena like reflection and refraction, which were studied on this basis of Ray Optics, can also be understood on the basis of Wave Optics. Then we described Young’s double slit experiment which was a turning point n the study of optics. Finally, we described some associated points such as diffraction, resolution, polarisation, and validity of ray optics.

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