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, 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.

Venus Compared to Earth

Venus is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin” (or “sister planet”), and for good reason. Despite some rather glaring differences, not the least of which is their vastly different atmospheres, there are enough similarities between Earth and Venus that many scientists consider the two to be closely related. In short, they are believed to have been very similar early in their existence, but then evolved in different directions.

Earth and Venus are both terrestrial planets that are located within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) and have similar sizes and compositions. Beyond that, however, they have little in common. Let’s go over all their characteristics, one by one, so we can in what ways they are  different and what ways they are similar.

Continue reading “Venus Compared to Earth”

How We’ve ‘Morphed’ From “Starry Night” to Planck’s View of the BICEP2 Field

From the vantage point of a window in an insane asylum, Vincent van Gogh painted one of the most noted and valued artistic works in human history. It was the summer of 1889. With his post-impressionist paint strokes, Starry Night depicts a night sky before sunrise that undulates, flows and is never settled. Scientific discoveries are revealing a Cosmos with such characteristics.

Since Vincent’s time, artists and scientists have taken their respective paths to convey and understand the natural world. The latest released images taken by the European Planck Space Telescope reveals new exquisite details of our Universe that begin to touch upon the paint strokes of the great master and at the same time looks back nearly to the beginning of time. Since Van Gogh – the passage of 125 years – scientists have constructed a progressively intricate and incredible description of the Universe.

New images returned by the Planck telescope (right) begin to rival the complexity and beauty of a great artists imagination - Starry Night.A visulization of the Planck data represents the interaction of interstellar dust with the galactic magnetic field. Color defines the intensity of dust emisions and the measurements of polarized light reveals the direction of the magnetic field lines. (Credits: Vincent Van Gogh, ESA)
New images returned by the Planck telescope (right) begin to rival the complexity and beauty of a great artists imagination – Starry Night.A visulization of the Planck data represents the interaction of interstellar dust with the galactic magnetic field. Color defines the intensity of dust emisions and the measurements of polarized light reveals the direction of the magnetic field lines. (Credits: Vincent Van Gogh, ESA)

The path from Van Gogh to the Planck Telescope imagery is indirect, an abstraction akin to the impressionism of van Gogh’s era. Impressionists in the 1800s showed us that the human mind could interpret and imagine the world beyond the limitations of our five senses. Furthermore, optics since the time of Galileo had begun to extend the capability of our senses.

A photograph of James Clerk Maxwell and a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Maxwell's equations and impressionism in the fine arts in the 19th Century sparked an enhanced perception, expression and abstraction of the World and began a trek of knowledge and technology into the modern era. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)
A photograph of James Clerk Maxwell and a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Maxwell’s equations and impressionism in the fine arts in the 19th Century sparked an enhanced perception, expression and abstraction of the World and began a trek of knowledge and technology into the modern era. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

Mathematics is perhaps the greatest form of abstraction of our vision of the World, the Cosmos. The path of science from the era of van Gogh began with his contemporary, James Clerk Maxwell who owes inspiration from the experimentalist Michael Faraday. The Maxwell equations mathematically define the nature of electricity and magnetism. Since Maxwell, electricity, magnetism and light have been intertwined. His equations are now a derivative of a more universal equation – the Standard Model of the Universe. The accompanying Universe Today article by Ramin Skibba describes in more detail the new findings by Planck Mission scientists and its impact on the Standard Model.

The work of Maxwell and experimentalists such as Faraday, Michelson and Morley built an overwhelming body of knowledge upon which Albert Einstein was able to write his papers of 1905, his miracle year (Annus mirabilis). His theories of the Universe have been interpreted, verified time and again and lead directly to the Universe studied by scientists employing the Planck Telescope.

The first Solvay Conference in 1911 was organized by Max Planck and Hendrik Lorentz. Planck is standing, second from left. The first Solvay, by invitation only, included most of the greatest scientists of the early 20th Century. While Planck is known for his work on quanta, the groundwork for quantum theory - the Universe in minutiae , the Planck telescope is surveying the Universe in the large. Physicists are closer to unifying the nature of the two extremes. Insets - Planck (1933, 1901).
The first Solvay Conference in 1911 was organized by Max Planck and Hendrik Lorentz. Planck is standing, second from left. The first Solvay, by invitation only, included most of the greatest scientists of the early 20th Century. While Planck is known for his work on quanta, the groundwork for quantum theory – the Universe in minutiae , the Planck telescope is surveying the Universe in the large. Physicists are closer to unifying the nature of the two extremes. Insets – Planck (1933, 1901).

In 1908, the German physicist Max Planck, for whom the ESA telescope is named, recognized the importance of Einstein’s work and finally invited him to Berlin and away from the obscurity of a patent office in Bern, Switzerland.

As Einstein spent a decade to complete his greatest work, the General Theory of Relativity, astronomers began to apply more powerful tools to their trade. Edwin Hubble, born in the year van Gogh painted Starry Night, began to observe the night sky with the most powerful telescope in the World, the Mt Wilson 100 inch Hooker Telescope. In the 1920s, Hubble discovered that the Milky Way was not the whole Universe but rather an island universe, one amongst billions of galaxies. His observations revealed that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy of a form similar to neighboring galaxies, for example, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were human wrecking balls in their respective professions. What began with Faraday and Maxwell, van Gogh and Gaugin were taken to new heights. We are encapsulated in the technology derived from these masters but are able to break free of the confinement technology can impose through the expression and art of Picasso and his contemporaries.
Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were human wrecking balls in their respective professions. What began with Faraday and Maxwell, van Gogh and Gaugin were taken to new heights. We are encapsulated in the technology derived from these masters but are able to break free of the confinement technology can impose through the expression and art of Picasso and his contemporaries.

Einstein’s equations and Picasso’s abstraction created another rush of discovery and expressionism that propel us for another 50 years. Their influence continues to impact our lives today.

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, several times the angular size of the Moon. First photographed by Isaac Roberts, 1899 (inset), spirals are a function of gravity and the propagation of shock waves, across the expanses of such galaxies are electromagnetic fields such as reported by Planck mission scientists.
The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, several times the angular size of the Moon. First photographed by Isaac Roberts, 1899 (inset), spirals are a function of gravity and the propagation of shock waves, across the expanses of such galaxies are electromagnetic fields such as reported by Planck mission scientists.

Telescopes of Hubble’s era reached their peak with the Palomar 200 inch telescope, four times the light gathering power of Mount Wilson’s. Astronomy had to await the development of modern electronics. Improvements in photographic techniques would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The development of electronics was accelerated by the pressures placed upon opposing forces during World War II. Karl Jansky developed radio astronomy in the 1930s which benefited from research that followed during the war years. Jansky detected the radio signature of the Milky Way. As Maxwell and others imagined, astronomy began to expand beyond just visible light – into the infrared and radio waves. Discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson is arguably the greatest discovery  from observations in the radio wave (and microwave) region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

From 1937 to the present day, radio astronomy has been an ever refining merger of electronics and optics. Karl Jansky's first radio telescope, 1937 (inset) and the great ALMA array now in operation studying the Universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credits: ESO)
From 1937 to the present day, radio astronomy has been an ever refining merger of electronics and optics. Karl Jansky’s first radio telescope, 1937 (inset) and the great ALMA array now in operation studying the Universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credits: ESO)

Analog electronics could augment photographic studies. Vacuum tubes led to photo-multiplier tubes that could count photons and measure more accurately the dynamics of stars and the spectral imagery of planets, nebulas and whole galaxies. Then in the 1947, three physicists at Bell Labs , John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley created the transistor that continues to transform the World today.

For astronomy and our image of the Universe, it meant more acute imagery of the Universe and imagery spanning across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared Astronomy developed slowly beginning in the 1800s but it was solid state electronics in the 1960s when it came of age. Microwave or Millimeter Radio Astronomy required a marriage of radio astronomy and solid state electronics. The first practical millimeter wave telescope began operations in 1980 at Kitt Peak Observatory.

A early work of Picasso (center), the work at Bell Labs of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley and the mobile art of Alexander Calder. As artists attempt to balance color and shape, the Bell Lab engineers balanced electrons essentially on the head of a pin, across junctions to achieve success and create the first transistor.
An early work of Picasso (center), the work at Bell Labs of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley and the mobile art of Alexander Calder. As artists attempt to balance color and shape, the Bell Lab engineers balanced electrons essentially on the head of a pin, across junctions to create the first transistor.

With further improvements in solid state electronics and development of extremely accurate timing devices and development of low-temperature solid state electronics, astronomy has reached the present day. With modern rocketry, sensitive devices such as the Hubble and Planck Space Telescopes have been lofted into orbit and above the opaque atmosphere surrounding the Earth.

In 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMD) was discovered. In the early 1990s, the COBE space telescope even more detailed results. Planck has refined and expanded  upon IRAS, COBE and BICEP observations. (Photo Credits: ESA)
In 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) was discovered. In the early 1990s, the COBE space telescope returned even more detailed results and now Planck has refined and expanded upon IRAS, COBE and BICEP observations of the CMB. Inset, first light observations of the Planck mission. (Photo Credits: ESA)

Astronomers and physicists now probe the Universe across the whole electromagnetic spectrum generating terabytes of data and abstractions of the raw data allow us to look out into the Universe with effectively a sixth sense, that which is given to us by 21st century technology. What a remarkable coincidence that the observations of our best telescopes peering through hundreds of thousands of light years, even more so, back 13.8 billion years to the beginning of time, reveal images of the Universe that are not unlike the brilliant and beautiful paintings of a human with a mind that gave him no choice but to see the world differently.

Now 125 years later, this sixth sense forces us to see the World in a similar light. Peer up into the sky and you can imagine the planetary systems revolving around nearly every star, swirling clouds of spiral galaxies, one even larger in the sky than our Moon, and waves of magnetic fields everywhere across the starry night.

Consider what the Planck Mission is revealing, questions it is answering and new ones it is raising – It Turns Out Primordial Gravitational Waves Weren’t Found.