How Does Light Travel? | Universe Today
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How Does Light Travel?

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 era, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed us 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 unanswered questions about 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.

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 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).

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.

Matt Williams @

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

View Comments

  • First time I heard about A. A. and his theory about light I really didn't like him.
    Because light was the the fastest thing in the universe and there is no other thing faster than the light.
    Later, when I have red about angular speed I have asked my self if you have linear and angular speed and both of them are speeds how that will result in the maximum speed.
    Since then, I have not had a chance to get right answer.

  • Wow...there are errors in the article, yes...the enthusiasm demonstrated by all the comments is encouraging...but when I read these comments, I am a bit dismayed at the lack of understanding that is evident in most of them...confusing energy and intensity and wavelength...confusing rest mass and inertial mass...not to mention some off-the-wall hypotheses with no experimental evidence to support them. There are some great primers out there...books, documentaries, podcasts (like Astronomy Cast). Good luck!

    • Precisely correct.
      Sci-fi rules basic physics, which reflects on the poor education system. Pity.

  • If light is a particle and particles have mass why does not the mas increase with it speed?

  • The point of the article is nothing new; light acts like a particle AND a beam. So when you sit behind a closed door and someone shines a light on the door, the light will engulf the door and wave through and around the edges, the particle does not just bounce straight back. You can focus a beam of light on an object, but it will sneak though the corners and underneath the door, through any opening,. And yes, light travels forever. It is a constant, that cannot be sped up. We can slow it down by focusing it through prisims or crystals. But it still is traveling at 186,000/MPS.and that speed does not change. So, that is why we can see the outer edge of the universe: 13,8B light years away *the time that it takes for light to travel in one year, is one light year. So, it has taken 13,8B light years for the light of other galaxies to get here, so those galaxies could be gone by now, since it took so long to reach us, We are truly looking back in time as we see the light emitted from those galaxies and stars.

  • Photons are not massless, but their mass is incredibly small even compared to a proton or neutron. So, by Einstein's E=MC^2, the energy required for a photon to move is greatly reduced, but photons do have mass and are affected by gravity. If photons had no mass at all, then gravity would have no affect on them, but gravity does. Gravity bends light and can change it's course through space. We see that in the actual test first performed to prove Einstein's theory buy observing the distorted placement of stars as their light passes near the sun observed during an eclipse. We can also see it through gravitational lensing when viewing deeps space objects. And the fact that there are black holes that are black because light cannot escape it's gravity. So photons do have mass, be it miniscule, and with that their propagation with light waves through space will eventually run out of energy and stop. but this would probably require distances greater to several widths of our universe to accomplish. Light from the furthest reaches of the universe are not as bright, or as energetic, as they are at anyplace between here and their origins. That reduction in their energy is also attributed to Einstein's equation and the inverse square law, where the intensity of light is in relation to the inverse square of the distance. That proves that light looses energy the further it travels, but it still moves at the speed of light. As light looses energy, it doesn't slow the light wave.

    • It has been proven that more energetic light does in fact travel slightly faster. You can find the experiments done with light that has traveled billions of light years, the more energetic is in fact faster over a number of seconds, around 10 -15 or so. As people encounter this information, they see that many accepted theories can now be debunked.

  • From this article, I have "And in the end, the only thing that can truly slow down or arrest the speed of light is gravity"

    Doesn't light slow down in water and glass and other mediums. I was only a Physics minor, but I do remember coivering this though way back in the early 80's. And in my quick checking online, I found the following.

    "Light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometers per second in a vacuum, which has a refractive index of 1.0, but it slows down to 225,000 kilometers per second in water (refractive index = 1.3; see Figure 1) and 200,000 kilometers per second in glass (refractive index of 1.5)."

    Were they saying something else here. I did like the article.

  • Gravity and light are infinite, like space and time…
    Mind the concept that there are waves within waves, motions within motion, vibrations within vibration, endless overtones and universal harmony…

  • This article is good but the title is bad as by the end we still weren't told how light travels through space. Also, there are some historical mistakes as already pointed out. Now for my contribution: I think that light and Gravity have a lot in common; for one - an atom's electrons transmit light and an atom contains the tiny heavy place that knows everything there is to know about gravity, that is, the nucleus. Light and Gravity are both related to the same entity, the atom. Unfortunately, we, still cannot grasp how what's heavy brings about gravitation. For those of you with a creed for new ideas go to:
    It's a hypothesis...


  • 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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