Light moves at different wavelengths, represented here by the different colors seen in a prism. Credit: NASA and ESA

How Does Light Travel?

19 May , 2016 by

Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century’s BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed that it behaves as both.

These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, there remains many fascinating and unanswered questions when it comes to light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?

Theory of Light to the 19th Century:

During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle’s theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four “elements” that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.

In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or “corpuscles”). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton.

The first edition of Newton's Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.

The first edition of Newton’s Opticks: or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light (1704). Credit: Public Domain.

Newton’s corpuscular theory was an elaboration of his view of reality as an interaction of material points through forces. This theory would remain the accepted scientific view for more than 100 years, the principles of which were explained in his 1704 treatise “Opticks, or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light“. According to Newton, the principles of light could be summed as follows:

  • Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
  • These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.

This represented a challenge to “wave theory”, which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his Traité de la lumière (“Treatise on Light“). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.

Double-Slit Experiment:

By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.

The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment, which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young’s version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.

According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.

The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation, would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.

Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:

Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter’s moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).

Prof. Albert Einstein uses the blackboard as he delivers the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the auditorium of the Carnegie Institue of Technology Little Theater at Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1934. Using three symbols, for matter, energy and the speed of light respectively, Einstein offers additional proof of a theorem propounded by him in 1905 that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. (AP Photo)

Prof. Albert Einstein delivering the 11th Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28th, 1934. Credit: AP Photo

By the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell’s equations) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c).

In 1905, Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.

Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity, which reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.

For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.

Einstein and the Photon:

In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect, Einstein based his idea on Planck’s earlier work with “black bodies” – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).

At the time, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the “black body problem”, in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object’s heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes).

At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein’s explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named “photons”. For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

Wave-Particle Duality:

Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger’s paradox that claimed that all particles have a “wave function”.

In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function, a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly “collapse”, or rather “decohere”, to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the “Schrödinger Cat” paradox).

In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect. The animation below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

Artist’s impression of two photons travelling at different wavelengths, resulting in different- colored light. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.

When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.

The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.

So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly divert it, or arrest it, is gravity (i.e. a black hole).

What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.

For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!

We have written many articles about light here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Fast is the Speed of Light?, How Far is a Light Year?, What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?

If you’d like more info on light, check out these articles from The Physics Hypertextbook and NASA’s Mission Science page.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.

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2 Sun
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2 Sun
May 19, 2016 3:39 PM

“HOW DOES LIGHT TRAVEL?”

it travels lightly. grin

Marcus999
Guest
May 19, 2016 4:23 PM

Light doesn’t exist. This is an observation from light’s point of view and not ours. Traveling at the speed of (wait for it) light, absolutely no time passes between leaving it’s source and reaching it’s destination for the photon. This means, to the photon hitting your retina, it is also still on that star you are observing 10 light years away. How is this possible? Maybe John Wheeler was right when he told Richard Feynman that there is only one electron in the universe and it travels forward in time as an electron, then back in time as a positron and every electron we see is the same electron.

don j
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don j
May 19, 2016 4:55 PM

MY QUESTION IS: Whether light is a wave , particle or both.. where does it get the energy to move through space/time. In other words is the energy of light infinite? Does it continue on without lose of energy…..forever…….

Mr Whizard
Member
Mr Whizard
May 20, 2016 12:42 AM

I believe that Special Relativity says that the energy of light is infinite due to the very fact it has no mass. E=MC^2

In reverse, this is also why something with mass to begin with. If accelerated toward the speed of light, will see their mass and gravity increase to infinite points as they near relativistic speed (it actually starts around 95% with a steep upward curve from there), with a relative slowing to a stop of time.

John
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John
May 20, 2016 11:44 AM

Join the discussion

Brad Holkesvig
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Brad Holkesvig
May 19, 2016 4:57 PM
Light and the universe are only illusions that are formed in our minds via technology that sends information from the simulation program we’re living in. That information comes in the form of invisible wavelengths that includes wavelengths that we perceive as light. The visible retinas in our eyes are like tiny video screens where these particles are arranged into patterns that form into all the various objects we think are real objects. This information is also converted into thoughts within our minds which are like computer processors that process that information. We are living in a computer simulation that is much more advanced than anything the characters in the program have built according to the information called the… Read more »
Nathan S.
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Nathan S.
May 19, 2016 8:16 PM

Brad,…So You’re suggesting that “life” as we know and call it “is some kind of retro-virus” or “bio-intelligent format” heaped upon a perceived “set of accepted data sets” that are not in sync with each other in most cases with exception to Math 94% of the time….Even then it can vary which suggests Your idea would mean we all live in a fairy tale. That is what you suggest,…right?……

scott
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scott
May 20, 2016 2:43 PM

Brad has watched the Matrix too many times.

Fred S
Member
Fred S
May 19, 2016 4:53 PM

Correction: Even gravity doesn’t slow light down.
Light (EM radiation of any wavelength) always travels at speed c, relative to any local inertial (Lorentz) frame.
It could also be noted that the wavelength of an EM wave is not a characteristic of that wave alone; it also depends on the state of motion of the observer.
You might even say, “One man’s radio wave is another man’s gamma ray.”

nerdrage
Member
nerdrage
May 19, 2016 10:50 PM

Light actually “slows down” every time it has to travel through anything but a vacuum. Look up Cherenkov radiation to see what happens when light initially travels faster than it can through a particular substance, like water. Light speed is not constant when traveling through any medium except pure vacuum. In fact that is why your pencil looks bent when you drop it in a glass of water. Light bends to find it’s fastest path through any medium, and it slows down in that medium.

gene
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gene
May 19, 2016 5:34 PM

if all you scientist could ever get it in your pie brain that there is no time, no light speed, no warping space, no black holes for the purpose of moving through space quickly, no smallest no biggest when it comes to space and that all of everything has always been in existence but not necessarily as it is now. you will never find the smallest because if it exist it has an inside, and you will never find the end of space because it is infinite.

james
Guest
May 19, 2016 7:03 PM

What are you smoking?

R. Dale Gray
Guest
May 19, 2016 5:37 PM
The article started out nicely, but I lost interest as mistakes began to appear. First Einstein did not “propose” the photoelectric effect. The photoelectric effect was first observed by Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Einstein used the idea of photons to explain the photoelectric effect and derive the photoelectric equation. Also, Max Plank had already derived the blackbody distribution, by assuming that electromagnetic energy of frequency f could only be emitted in multiples of energy E=hf, by 1900. Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect was published in his “miracle” year of 1905. The photoelectric effect has nothing to do with black body radiation. Einstein did not coin the name “photons” for light quanta, as stated in this article. This… Read more »
mecheng1
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mecheng1
May 19, 2016 5:43 PM

Oh, it’s BCE now, “Before the Common Era” BC has worked for 2000 years but now the PC police have stepped in so as not to offend who? Some Muslims?

Pablo Consuelos
Guest
Pablo Consuelos
May 19, 2016 6:55 PM

mecheng1, you must be very young. BCE has been in used in academia for decades. It’s nothing “new”, just out of your circle of knowledge.

latrese McCowen
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latrese McCowen
May 20, 2016 8:06 AM

Decades??? Really?? How does that compare to 2000 years?

TomArt
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TomArt
May 20, 2016 5:55 PM
Only in Euro-centric texts have your assertions been true, McCowen. The rest of the world not influenced by Christianity have used their own calendars and a “0” year or a “year 1” from which to reckon the passage of time, largely based on their own religions or celestial observations. Over the last century or so, through commerce, most of the world has generally accepted the use of a Western calendar (or use it along with their own for domestic purposes, like we here in the US still use Imperial units of measure that have to be converted to metric for international commerce). So, we are in a “common era” insofar as non-Christian societies are incorporating the Gregorian Calendar… Read more »
Sam
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Sam
May 19, 2016 6:27 PM

Where is the information carried on a photon hitting my eye(s), or cluster/group/pack of photons hitting my eyes(s), that I see as other distant galaxies and planets going around stars?

nerdrage
Member
nerdrage
May 19, 2016 10:53 PM

That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Even in scattering, light remains coherent enough to convey an enormous amount of information.

Tim
Member
May 19, 2016 6:29 PM
Since the miniscule equal masses with opposite charges, that make up the photon structure, interact at 90 degrees, this induces a spin (a finding from the 80’s by the LANL plasma physics program) which creates a centrifugal force that counterbalances the charge attraction of the opposite charges. This establishes a stable structure for energies less than 1.0216 MeV, the pair-formation threshold, separating these “neutrino” sub-components by a specific distance providing wavelengths varying with photon energy. This composite photon propagates transversely at c/n, the speed of light divided by the index of refraction of the material traversed. In spite of the mass being defined as zero, for convenience in calculating atomic masses, there is actually an infinitesimal but non-zero… Read more »
R. Dale Gray
Guest
May 19, 2016 8:03 PM

Tim, you poor guy! You have a discombobulated brain! Everything you wrote is just gibberish.

edison
Guest
May 19, 2016 6:31 PM

i would like to know the temperature in a black hole…maybe absolute zero? is absolute zero the moment that time stop?

JALNIN
Guest
JALNIN
May 19, 2016 11:08 PM

I think the temp inside a black hole would be extremely high since temperature seems to increase with mass. Comparing absolute zero to time stopping is very interesting though. To the observer they would appear the same.

Mr Whizard
Member
Mr Whizard
May 20, 2016 1:03 AM
Theoretically there is no temperature in a black hole from any observer POV because time is stopped. Although JALNIN does bring up that point, and he also brings up the point of increasing mass corresponding to increasing energy. Everything in Hawking and Einstein’s equations though, suggest that any energy would be absorbed back by the singularity, so there wouldn’t be any heat. In fact it should be infinitely cold. But time is no more, so technically no heat or energy is emitted anyway from any observers POV. Yet recent images of black holes from Chandra show that they emit powerful Gamma Jets along their spin axis just like Neutron stars, and Pulsars. BTW edison. The accretion disk can… Read more »
edison
Guest
May 19, 2016 6:31 PM

i would like to know the temperature in a black hole…maybe absolute zero? is absolute zero the moment that time stop?

Pablo Consuelos
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Pablo Consuelos
May 19, 2016 6:52 PM

Light doesn’t travel, it just IS. It is we, the condensed matter, that travels, through time.

james
Guest
May 19, 2016 7:06 PM

Oh really? Is this just your imagination/illusion or you have published a paper on it?

Pablo Consuelos
Guest
Pablo Consuelos
May 19, 2016 7:23 PM

So you don’t believe you travel through time?

David Le
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David Le
May 19, 2016 7:15 PM

I wish I understood just a portion of I just read, love sicence so bad BUT, sighs

nerdrage
Member
nerdrage
May 19, 2016 10:54 PM

It would be easier to understand if it wasn’t pure gibberish written by someone with no science background.

mark lama
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mark lama
May 19, 2016 7:48 PM
I have two “mind-bending relativity side effects” to share. At least they are mind-bending to me. 1) Light travels the same speed relative to all particles of mass, regardless of how those particles move relative to each other: I can conceptualize this if we are only talking about two mass-particles/observers and the examples I’ve seen always involve only two observers. But if you have many mass-particles/observers, how does the space-time seem to know to adjust differently for all of them. I am sure i am understanding this correctly as it is a basic concept of special relativity and nobody seems to bring this issue up. But it “bends my mind” when i try to include more than two… Read more »
mark lama
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mark lama
May 19, 2016 7:51 PM

I need to correct a typo in my previous comment. Where i say “i am sure am understanding this correctly” I meant to include the word NOT. so it should read “i am sure am NOT understanding this correctly”
Mark L.

Nathan S.
Guest
Nathan S.
May 19, 2016 8:41 PM
Mark,….I think you’re understanding it just fine from the standpoint of multiple observers, The point might be that in space, the density of “emptiness” or “lack of emptiness” might be impacted from one area of observation to another by an observer who’s perceptions are not equal but not being taken into consideration by each observer. ( an example if I may?) If you were to use a Clear medium which is oil based beginning with 5 gallons of mineral spirits in a large barrel and keep adding 5 gallons of thicker clear oil and then heavy grease and stop with using a clear heavy wax,…what happens is you end up with a barrel of clear fluid that begins… Read more »
Mr Whizard
Member
Mr Whizard
May 21, 2016 12:14 AM
All Special Relativity really says about light is that it appears to move at the same rate from any observer POV. There are other more advanced rules relating to light speeds. One of them is the implication of infinite energy in a photon because of the fact it’s mass-less, therefore it can move at the maximum rate a mass-less particle or wave can (not necessarily that it does) Later when the electron was discovered (also mass-less particle or wave), it was also found to conform to the rules of special relativity. As far as the big bang, there are a lot of cracks in that theory, and many different ones are beginning to dispute some of the common… Read more »
moonpup
Guest
May 19, 2016 9:06 PM

i think until there is an understanding of the actual “fabric” of space itself, the wave vs particle confusion will continue. another interesting article recently was the half integer values of rotating light. planck’s constant was broken? gravity? a bump in the data? lol these are interesting times.

nerdrage
Member
nerdrage
May 19, 2016 10:55 PM

There’s no fabric.

Richardg
Guest
Richardg
May 20, 2016 1:23 AM

Tesla insists there is an aether, Einstein says not.
Tesla enjoyed far less trial and error than Einstein. The vast majority of Tesla’s projects worked the first time around and required no development or experimentation. I’ll go with Tesla; there is an aether as a fabric of space.

Weinstein
Member
May 19, 2016 9:27 PM

http://weinsteinsletter.weebly.com/aether.html

Maybe Special Relativity is not correct? smile

nerdrage
Member
nerdrage
May 19, 2016 10:47 PM
Feynman said unequivocally that QED is NOT a wave theory. In fact, the math only looks like Maxwell’s wave function when you are looking at a single particle at a time, but the analogy breaks down as soon as you start looking at the interactions of more than one, which is the real case. There’s no light acting alone, but always an interaction between a photon and some other particle, an electron, another photon, or whatever. He said “light is particles.” So the question re: how can light travel through a vacuum if it’s waves is a nonsensical question. There are no collapsing wave functions in light. There’s only probabilities of position that look like waves on a… Read more »
JALNIN
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JALNIN
May 19, 2016 11:00 PM

I don’t agree with the John Wheeler theory that there is only one electron since the computer I am using was built by ion implantation and uses a very large number of them simultaneously to function.

Adam
Guest
May 20, 2016 1:21 AM

Black holes don’t stop or slow light, if they even exist. A black hole could phase shift light, which is why we see things emitting xrays and call them black holes….but they could be something else too.

charles stein
Guest
charles stein
May 20, 2016 1:26 AM

Photons have no mass but they do have energy. Energy and mass are transformable into each other. Gravity works on energy as well as mass. As massive particles approach the speed of light their measurable mass increases to infinity. But since energy is equivalent to mass, why doesn’t the photon, which has energy, not seem to have infinite mass?

John Carl Johnson
Guest
John Carl Johnson
May 20, 2016 1:52 AM

NO other wave travels thru a vacuum? what about radio?

krenshala
Guest
krenshala
May 20, 2016 10:14 AM

Radio waves are a specific frequency range of light.

Mr Whizard
Member
Mr Whizard
May 21, 2016 12:30 AM

Technically speaking, radio waves are emitted at various frequencies that share the same space time as light. They are not however light. They’re modulated electrons. Modulated photons certainly can be used to carry a vast amount of information a great distance. It cannot do it any faster or better than a radio wave though. Both electrons and photons are mass-less, therefore they both conform to the rules of Special Relativity in the same way. Both travel at the speed of light.

OVVYYYXXXX
Guest
OVVYYYXXXX
May 20, 2016 1:55 AM

I just don’t understand is it a particle of a wave?
It seems like it behaves like wave and sometimes like particle and in some situations is like a what ever you are going to call it.

So, the logical idea would to have formula
Photon_influence * weight_for_particle + Wave_influence * weight_for_wave

Make it more compact.

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