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How Light Works
by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.

We see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate kids' crayon drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, a blue sky, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on mirrors to make ourselves presentable, and sparkling gemstones to show affection. But did you ever stop to think that when we see any of these things, we are not directly connected to it? We are, in fact, seeing light -- light that somehow left objects far or near and reached our eyes. Light is all our eyes can really see.

The other way that we encounter light is in devices that produce light -- incandescent bulbs, fluorescent bulbs, lasers, lightning bugs, the sun. Each one uses a different technique to generate photons.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will look at light from many different angles to show you exactly how it works!

Ways of Thinking About Light
You have probably heard two different ways of talking about light:

  • There is the "particle" theory, expressed in part by the word photon.
  • There is the "wave" theory, expressed by the term light wave.
From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have thought of light as a stream of tiny particles. After all, light travels in straight lines and bounces off a mirror much like a ball bouncing off a wall. No one had actually seen particles of light, but even now it's easy to explain why that might be. The particles could be too small, or moving too fast, to be seen, or perhaps our eyes see right through them.

The idea of the light wave came from Christian Huygens, who proposed in the late 1600s that light acted like a wave instead of a stream of particles. In 1807, Thomas Young backed up Huygens' theory by showing that when light passes through a very narrow opening, it can spread out, and interfere with light passing through another opening. Young shined a light through a very narrow slit. What he saw was a bright bar of light that corresponded to the slit. But that was not all he saw. Young also perceived additional light, not as bright, in the areas around the bar. If light were a stream of particles, this additional light would not have been there. This experiment suggested that light spread out like a wave. In fact, a beam of light radiates outward at all times.

Albert Einstein advanced the theory of light further in 1905. Einstein considered the photoelectric effect, in which ultraviolet light hits a surface and causes electrons to be emitted from the surface. Einstein's explanation for this was that light was made up of a stream of energy packets called photons.

Modern physicists believe that light can behave as both a particle and a wave, but they also recognize that either view is a simple explanation for something more complex. In this article, we will talk about light as waves, because this provides the best explanation for most of the phenomena our eyes can see.

What is Light?
Why is it that a beam of light radiates outward, as Young proved? What is really going on? To understand light waves, it helps to start by discussing a more familiar kind of wave -- the one we see in the water. One key point to keep in mind about the water wave is that it is not made up of water: The wave is made up of energy traveling through the water. If a wave moves across a pool from left to right, this does not mean that the water on the left side of the pool is moving to the right side of the pool. The water has actually stayed about where it was. It is the wave that has moved. When you move your hand through a filled bathtub, you make a wave, because you are putting your energy into the water. The energy travels through the water in the form of the wave.

All waves are traveling energy, and they are usually moving through some medium, such as water. You can see a diagram of a water wave in Figure 1. A water wave consists of water molecules that vibrate up and down at right angles to the direction of motion of the wave. This type of wave is called a transverse wave.

Light waves are a little more complicated, and they do not need a medium to travel through. They can travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields. The fields vibrate at right angles to the direction of movement of the wave, and at right angles to each other. Because light has both electric and magnetic fields, it is also referred to as electromagnetic radiation.

Figure 1

Light waves come in many sizes. The size of a wave is measured as its wavelength, which is the distance between any two corresponding points on successive waves, usually peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough (Figure 1). The wavelengths of the light we can see range from 400 to 700 billionths of a meter. But the full range of wavelengths included in the definition of electromagnetic radiation extends from one billionth of a meter, as in gamma rays, to centimeters and meters, as in radio waves. Light is one small part of the spectrum.

Light waves also come in many frequencies. The frequency is the number of waves that pass a point in space during any time interval, usually one second. It is measured in units of cycles (waves) per second, or Hertz (Hz). The frequency of visible light is referred to as color, and ranges from 430 trillion Hz, seen as red, to 750 trillion Hz, seen as violet. Again, the full range of frequencies extends beyond the visible spectrum, from less than one billion Hz, as in radio waves, to greater than 3 billion billion Hz, as in gamma rays.

As noted above, light waves are waves of energy. The amount of energy in a light wave is proportionally related to its frequency: High frequency light has high energy; low frequency light has low energy. Thus gamma rays have the most energy, and radio waves have the least. Of visible light, violet has the most energy and red the least.

Light not only vibrates at different frequencies, it also travels at different speeds. Light waves move through a vacuum at their maximum speed, 300,000 kilometers per second or 186,000 miles per second, which makes light the fastest phenomenon in the universe. Light waves slow down when they travel inside substances, such as air, water, glass or a diamond. The way different substances affect the speed at which light travels is key to understanding the bending of light, or refraction, which we will discuss later.

Figure 2

So light waves come in a continuous variety of sizes, frequencies and energies. We refer to this continuum as the electromagnetic spectrum (Figure 2). Figure 2 is not drawn to scale, in that visible light occupies only one-thousandth of a percent of the spectrum.

Producing a Photon
Any light that you see is made up of a collection of one or more photons propagating through space as electromagnetic waves. In total darkness, our eyes are actually able to sense single photons, but generally what we see in our daily lives comes to us in the form of zillions of photons produced by light sources and reflected off objects. If you look around you right now, there is probably a light source in the room producing photons, and objects in the room that reflect those photons. Your eyes absorb some of the photons flowing through the room, and that is how you see.

There are many different ways to produce photons, but all of them use the same mechanism inside an atom to do it. This mechanism involves the energizing of electrons orbiting each atom's nucleus. How Nuclear Radiation Works describes protons, neutrons and electrons in some detail. For example, hydrogen atoms have one electron orbiting the nucleus. Helium atoms have two electrons orbiting the nucleus. Aluminum atoms have 13 electrons orbiting the nucleus. Each atom has a preferred number of electrons orbiting its nucleus.

Electrons circle the nucleus in fixed orbits -- a simplified way to think about it is to imagine how satellites orbit the Earth. There's a huge amount of theory around electron orbitals, but to understand light there is just one key fact to understand: An electron has a natural orbit that it occupies, but if you energize an atom you can move its electrons to higher orbitals. A photon of light is produced whenever an electron in a higher-than-normal orbit falls back to its normal orbit. During the fall from high-energy to normal-energy, the electron emits a photon -- a packet of energy -- with very specific characteristics. The photon has a frequency, or color, that exactly matches the distance the electron falls.

There are cases where you can see this phenomenon quite clearly. For example, in lots of factories and parking lots you see sodium vapor lights. You can tell a sodium vapor light because it is very yellow when you look at it. A sodium vapor light energizes sodium atoms to generate photons. A sodium atom has 11 electrons, and because of the way they are stacked in orbitals one of those electrons is most likely to accept and emit energy (this electron is called the 3s electron, and is explained on this page). The energy packets that this electron is most likely to emit fall right around a wavelength of 590 nanometers. This wavelength corresponds to yellow light. If you run sodium light through a prism, you do not see a rainbow -- you see a pair of yellow lines.

Probably the most common way to energize atoms is with heat, and this is the basis of incandescence. If you heat up a horseshoe with a blowtorch, it will eventually get red hot, and if you heat it enough it gets white hot. Red is the lowest-energy visible light, so in a red-hot object the atoms are just getting enough energy to begin emitting light that we can see. Once you apply enough heat to cause white light, you are energizing so many different electrons in so many different ways that all of the colors are being generated -- they all mix together to look white, as explained in one of the sections below.

Heat is the most common way we see light being generated -- a normal 75-watt incandescent bulb is generating light by using electricity to create heat. However, there are lots of other ways to generate light, some of which are listed below:

  • Halogen lamps - Halogen lamps use electricity to generate heat, but benefit from a technique that lets the filament run hotter.
  • Gas lanterns - A gas lantern uses a fuel like natural gas or kerosene as the source of heat.
  • Fluorescent lights - Fluorescent lights use electricity to directly energize atoms rather than requiring heat.
  • Lasers - Lasers use energy to "pump" a lasing medium, and all of the energized atoms are made to dump their energy at the exact same wavelength and phase.
  • Glow-in-the-dark toys - In a glow-in-the-dark toy, the electrons are energized but fall back to lower-energy orbitals over a long period of time, so the toy can glow for half an hour.
  • Indiglo watches - In Indiglo watches, voltage energizes phosphor atoms.
  • Chemical light sticks - A chemical light stick and, for that matter, fireflies, use a chemical reaction to energize atoms.
The thing to note from this list is that anything that produces light does it by energizing atoms in some way.

Making Colors
Visible light is light that can be perceived by the human eye. When you look at the visible light of the sun, it appears to be colorless, which we call white. And although we can see this light, white is not considered to be part of the visible spectrum (Figure 2). This is because white light is not the light of a single color, or frequency. Instead, it is made up of many color frequencies. When sunlight passes through a glass of water to land on a wall, we see a rainbow on the wall. This would not happen unless white light were a mixture of all of the colors of the visible spectrum. Isaac Newton was the first person to demonstrate this. Newton passed sunlight through a glass prism to separate the colors into a rainbow spectrum. He then passed sunlight through a second glass prism and combined the two rainbows. The combination produced white light. This proved conclusively that white light is a mixture of colors, or a mixture of light of different frequencies. The combination of every color in the visible spectrum produces a light that is colorless, or white.

  • Colors by Addition - You can do a similar experiment with three flashlights and three different colors of cellophane -- red, green and blue (commonly referred to as RGB). Cover one flashlight with one to two layers of red cellophane and fasten the cellophane with a rubber band (do not use too many layers or you will block the light from the flashlight). Cover another flashlight with blue cellophane and a third flashlight with green cellophane. Go into a darkened room, turn the flashlights on and shine them against a wall so that the beams overlap, as shown in Figure 3. Where red and blue light overlap, you will see magenta. Where red and green light overlap, you will see yellow. Where green and blue light overlap, you will see cyan. You will notice that white light can be made by various combinations, such as yellow with blue, magenta with green, cyan with red, and by mixing all of the colors together.

Figure 3

By adding various combinations of red, green and blue light, you can make all the colors of the visible spectrum. This is how computer monitors (RGB monitors) produce colors.

  • Colors by Subtraction - Another way to make colors is to absorb some of the frequencies of light, and thus remove them from the white light combination. The absorbed colors are the ones you will not see -- you see only the colors that come bouncing back to your eye. This is what happens with paints and dyes. The paint or dye molecules absorb specific frequencies and bounce back, or reflect, other frequencies to your eye. The reflected frequency (or frequencies) are what you see as the color of the object. For example, the leaves of green plants contain a pigment called chlorophyll, which absorbs the blue and red colors of the spectrum and reflects the green.

Here is an absorption experiment that you can try at home: Take a banana and the blue cellophane-covered flashlight you made earlier. Go into a dark room, and shine the blue light on the banana. What color do you think it should be? What color is it? If you shine blue light on a yellow banana, the yellow should absorb the blue frequency; and, because the room is dark, there is no yellow light reflected back to your eye. Therefore, the banana appears black.

So, if you had three paints or pigments in magenta, cyan and yellow, and you drew three overlapping circles with those colors, as shown in Figure 4, you would see that where you have combined magenta with yellow, the result is red. Mixing cyan with yellow produces green, and mixing cyan with magenta creates blue. Black is the special case in which all of the colors are absorbed. You can make black by combining yellow with blue, cyan with red or magenta with green. These particular combinations ensure that no frequencies of visible light can bounce back to your eyes.

Figure 4

But the color scheme demonstrated in Figure 4 appears to go against what your art teacher told you about mixing colors, right? If you mix yellow and blue crayons, you get green, not black. This is because artificial pigments, such as crayons, are not perfect absorbers -- they do not absorb all colors except one. A "yellow" crayon can absorb blue and violet while reflecting red, orange and green. A "blue" crayon can absorb red, orange and yellow while reflecting blue, violet and green. So when you combine the two crayons, all of the colors are absorbed except for green. Therefore, you see the mixture as green, instead of the black demonstrated in Figure 4.

So there are two basic ways by which we can see colors. Either an object can directly emit light waves in the frequency of the observed color, or an object can absorb all other frequencies, reflecting back to your eye only the light wave, or combination of light waves, that appears as the observed color. For example, to see a yellow object, either the object is directly emitting light waves in the yellow frequency, or it is absorbing the blue part of the spectrum and reflecting the red and green parts back to your eye, which perceives the combined frequencies as yellow.

When Light Hits an Object
When a light wave hits an object, what happens to it depends on the energy of the light wave, the natural frequency at which electrons vibrate in the material and the strength with which the atoms in the material hold on to their electrons. Based on these three factors, four different things can happen when light hits an object:

  • The waves can be reflected or scattered off the object.
  • The waves can be absorbed by the object.
  • The waves can be refracted through the object.
  • The waves can pass through the object with no effect.
And more than one of these possibilities can happen at once. The following five illustrations show these possibilities, with reflection and scattering illustrated separately.

  • Transmission - If the frequency or energy of the incoming light wave is much higher or much lower than the frequency needed to make the electrons in the material vibrate, then the electrons will not capture the energy of the light, and the wave will pass through the material unchanged. As a result, the material will be transparent to that frequency of light.

Most materials are transparent to some frequencies, but not to others. For example, high frequency light, such as gamma rays and X-rays, will pass through ordinary glass, but lower frequency ultraviolet and infrared light will not.

You can read more about what makes glass transparent on this page.

  • Absorption - In absorption, the frequency of the incoming light wave is at or near the vibration frequency of the electrons in the material. The electrons take in the energy of the light wave and start to vibrate. What happens next depends upon how tightly the atoms hold on to their electrons. Absorption occurs when the electrons are held tightly, and they pass the vibrations along to the nuclei of the atoms. This makes the atoms speed up, collide with other atoms in the material, and then give up as heat the energy they acquired from the vibrations.

The absorption of light makes an object dark or opaque to the frequency of the incoming wave. Wood is opaque to visible light. Some materials are opaque to some frequencies of light, but transparent to others. Glass is opaque to ultraviolet light, but transparent to visible light.

  • Reflection and Scattering: The atoms in some materials hold on to their electrons loosely. In other words, the materials contain many free electrons that can jump readily from one atom to another within the material. When the electrons in this type of material absorb energy from an incoming light wave, they do not pass that energy on to other atoms. The energized electrons merely vibrate and then send the energy back out of the object as a light wave with the same frequency as the incoming wave. The overall effect is that the light wave does not penetrate deeply into the material.

In most metals, electrons are held loosely, and are free to move around, so these metals reflect visible light and appear to be shiny. The electrons in glass have some freedom, though not as much as in metals. To a lesser degree, glass reflects light and appears to be shiny, as well.

A reflected wave always comes off the surface of a material at an angle equal to the angle at which the incoming wave hit the surface. In physics, this is called the Law of Reflectance. You have probably heard the Law of Reflectance stated as "the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection."

You can see for yourself that reflected light has the same frequency as the incoming wave. Just look at yourself in a mirror. The colors you see in the mirror's image are the same as those you see when you look down at yourself. The colors of your shirt and hair are the same as reflected in the mirror as they are on you. If this were not true, we would have to rely entirely on other people to tell us what we look like!

Scattering is merely reflection off a rough surface. Incoming light waves get reflected at all sorts of angles, because the surface is uneven. The surface of paper is a good example. You can see just how rough it is if you look at it under a microscope. When light hits paper, the waves are reflected in all directions. This is what makes paper so incredibly useful -- you can read the words on a printed page regardless of the angle at which your eyes view the surface.

    Another interesting rough surface is Earth's atmosphere. You probably don't think of the atmosphere as a surface, but it nonetheless is "rough" to incoming white light. The atmosphere contains molecules of many different sizes, including nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and various pollutants. This assortment scatters the higher energy light waves, the ones we see as blue light. This is why the sky looks blue.

    • Refraction - Refraction occurs when the energy of an incoming light wave matches the natural vibration frequency of the electrons in a material. The light wave penetrates deeply into the material, and causes small vibrations in the electrons. The electrons pass these vibrations on to the atoms in the material, and they send out light waves of the same frequency as the incoming wave. But this all takes time. The part of the wave inside the material slows down, while the part of the wave outside the object maintains its original frequency. This has the effect of bending the portion of the wave inside the object toward what is called the normal line, an imaginary straight line that runs perpendicular to the surface of the object. The deviation from the normal line of the light inside the object will be less than the deviation of the light before it entered the object.

    The amount of bending, or angle of refraction, of the light wave depends on how much the material slows down the light. Diamonds would not be so glittery if they did not slow down incoming light much more than, say, water does. Diamonds have a higher index of refraction than water, which is to say that they slow down light to a greater degree.

    One interesting note about refraction is that light of different frequencies, or energies, will bend at slightly different angles. Let's compare violet light and red light when they enter a glass prism. Because violet light has more energy, it takes longer to interact with the glass. As such, it is slowed down to a greater extent than a wave of red light, and will be bent to a greater degree. This accounts for the order of the colors that we see in a rainbow. It is also what gives a diamond the rainbow fringes that make it so pleasing to the eye.

    Rainbows in Soap Bubbles
    Have you ever wondered why soap bubbles are rainbow colored, or why an oil spill on a wet road has rainbow colors in it? This is what happens when light waves pass through an object with two reflective surfaces. When two incoming light waves of the same frequency strike a thin film of soap, as seen in Figure 5 below, parts of the light waves are reflected from the top surface, while other parts of the light pass through the film and are reflected from the bottom surface. Because the parts of the waves that penetrate the film interact with the film longer, they get knocked out of sync with the parts of the waves reflected by the top surface. Physicists refer to this state as being out of phase. When the two sets of waves strike the photoreceptors in your eyes, they interfere with each other; interference occurs when waves add together or subtract from each other and so form a new wave of a different frequency, or color.

    Basically, when white light, which is a mixture of different colors, shines on a film with two reflective surfaces, the various reflected waves interfere with each other to form rainbow fringes. The fringes change colors when you change the angle at which you look at the film, because you are changing the path by which the light must travel to reach your eye. If you decrease the angle at which you look at the film, you increase the amount of film the light must travel through for you to see it. This causes greater interference.

    Figure 5

    Everything we see is a product of, and is affected by, the nature of light. Light is a form of energy that travels in waves. Our eyes are attuned only to those wave frequencies that we call visible light. Intricacies in the wave nature of light explain the origin of color, how light travels, and what happens to light when it encounters different kinds of materials.


    • Hewitt, Paul G., (1999) Conceptual Physics, Third Edition, Scott-Foresman-Addison-Wesley, Inc., Menlo Park, Calif.
    • Serway, Raymond A, and Jerry S. Faughn, (1999) Holt Physics, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Austin, Texas

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