Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye. In general, natural light, emitted by a natural light source, is distinguished by artificial light emitted by an artificial lighting device.
Some observations lead us to believe that light is a transverse, electromagnetic wave, although the concept of light as a wave had a long and tortuous history. It is interesting to note that Isaac Newton very influentially advocated a contrary idea about light. The belief that matter was made of atoms was stylish at the time among radical thinkers (although there was no experimental evidence for their existence), and it seemed logical to Newton that light as well should be made of tiny particles, which he called corpuscles (Latin for “small objects”).
Newton’s triumphs in the science of mechanics, i.e., the study of matter, brought him such great prestige that nobody bothered to question his incorrect theory of light for 150 years. One persuasive proof that light is a wave is that according to Newton’s theory, two intersecting beams of light should experience at least some disruption because of collisions between their corpuscles. Even if the corpuscles were extremely small, and collisions therefore very infrequent, at least some dimming should have been measurable. In fact, very delicate experiments have shown that there is no dimming.
The wave theory of light was entirely successful up until the 20th century when it was discovered that not all the phenomena of light could be explained with a pure wave theory. It is now believed that both light and matter are made out of tiny chunks which have both wave and particle properties. For now, we will content ourselves with the wave theory of light, which is capable of explaining a great many things, from cameras to rainbows.
If the light is a wave, what is waving? What is the medium that wiggles when a light wave goes by? It isn’t air. A vacuum is impenetrable to sound, but the light from the stars travels happily through zillions of miles of empty space. Light bulbs have no air inside them, but that doesn’t prevent the light waves from leaving the filament. For a long time, physicists assumed that there must be a mysterious medium for light waves, and they called it the aether (not to be confused with the chemical).
Supposedly the aether existed everywhere in space and was immune to vacuum pumps. The details of the story are more fittingly reserved for later in this course, but the end result was that a long series of experiments failed to detect any evidence for the aether, and it is no longer believed to exist. Instead, light can be explained as a wave pattern made up of electrical and magnetic fields.
- Light and Matter by Benjamin Crowell. (CC BY-SA 3.0) www.lightandmatter.com