Imagine going to a concert hall to hear a band, and to your chagrin, you discover that your seat is directly behind a wide post. You cannot see the band, of course, because the light waves from the stage are blocked. But you have little trouble hearing the music, since sound waves simply diffract around the pillar. Light waves diffract slightly in such a situation, but not enough to make a difference with regard to your enjoyment of the concert: if you looked closely while sitting behind the post, you would be able to observe the diffraction of the light waves glowing slightly, as they widened around the post.
Suppose, now, that you had failed to obtain a ticket, but a friend who worked at the concert venue arranged to let you stand outside an open door and hear the band. The sound quality would be far from perfect, of course, but you would still be able to hear the music well enough. And if you stood right in front of the doorway, you would be able to see light from inside the concert hall. But, if you moved away from the door and stood with your back to the building, you would see little light, whereas the sound would still be easily audible.
The reason for the difference—that is, why sound diffraction is more pronounced than light diffraction—is that sound waves are much, much larger than light waves. Sound travels by longitudinal waves, or waves in which the movement of vibration is in the same direction as the wave itself. Longitudinal waves radiate outward in concentric circles, rather like the rings of a bull's-eye.
The waves by which sound is transmitted are larger, or comparable in size to, the column or the door—which is an example of an aperture—and, hence, they pass easily through apertures and around obstacles. Light waves, on the other hand, have a wavelength, typically measured in nanometers (nm), which are equal to one-millionth of a millimeter. Wavelengths for visible light range from 400 (violet) to 700 nm (red): hence, it would be possible to fit about 5,000 of even the longest visible-light wavelengths on the head of a pin!
Whereas differing wavelengths in light are manifested as differing colors, a change in sound wavelength indicates a change in pitch. The higher the pitch, the greater the frequency, and, hence, the shorter the wavelength. As with light waves—though, of course, to a much lesser
Due to the much wider range of areas in which light diffraction has been applied by scientists, diffraction of light and not sound will be the principal topic for the remainder of this essay. We have already seen that wavelength plays a role in diffraction; so, too, does the size of the aperture relative to the wavelength. Hence, most studies of diffraction in light involve very small openings, as, for instance, in the diffraction grating discussed below.
But light does not only diffract when passing through an aperture, such as the concert-hall door in the earlier illustration; it also diffracts around obstacles, as, for instance, the post or pillar mentioned earlier. This can be observed by looking closely at the shadow of a flagpole on a bright morning. At first, it appears that the shadow is "solid," but if one looks closely enough, it becomes clear that, at the edges, there is a blurring
Where the aperture or obstruction is large compared to the wave passing through or around it, there is only a little "fuzziness" at the edge, as in the case of the flagpole. When light passes through an aperture, most of the beam goes straight through without disturbance, with only the edges experiencing diffraction. If, however, the size of the aperture is close to that of the wavelength, the diffraction pattern will widen. Sound waves diffract at large angles through an open door, which, as noted, is comparable in size to a sound wave; similarly, when light is passed through extremely narrow openings, its diffraction is more noticeable.
Though his greatest contributions lay in his epochal studies of gravitation and motion, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) also studied the production and propagation of light. Using a prism, he separated the colors of the visible light spectrum—something that had already been done by other scientists—but it was Newton who discerned that the colors of the spectrum could be recombined to form white light again.
Newton also became embroiled in a debate as the nature of light itself—a debate in which diffraction studies played an important role. Newton's view, known at the time as the corpuscular theory of light, was that light travels as a stream of particles. Yet, his contemporary, Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), advanced the wave theory, or the idea that light travels by means of waves. Huygens maintained that a number of factors, including the phenomena of reflection and refraction, indicate that light is a wave. Newton, on the other hand, challenged wave theorists by stating that if light were actually a wave, it should be able to bend around corners—in other words, to diffract.
Though it did not become widely known until some time later, in 1648—more than a decade before the particle-wave controversy erupted—Johannes Marcus von Kronland (1595-1667), a scientist in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), discovered the diffraction of light waves. However, his findings were not recognized until some time later; nor did he give a name to the phenomenon he had observed. Then, in 1660, Italian physicist Francesco Grimaldi (1618-1663) conducted an experiment with diffraction that gained widespread attention.
Grimaldi allowed a beam of light to pass through two narrow apertures, one behind the other, and then onto a blank surface. When he did so, he observed that the band of light hitting the surface was slightly wider than it should be, based on the width of the ray that entered the first aperture. He concluded that the beam had been bent slightly outward, and gave this phenomenon the name by which it is known today: diffraction.
Particle theory continued to have its adherents in England, Newton's homeland, but by the time of French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), an increasing number of scientists on the European continent had come to accept the wave theory. Fresnel's work, which he published in 1818, served to advance that theory, and, in particular, the idea of light as a transverse wave.
In Memoire sur la diffraction de la lumiere, Fresnel showed that the transverse-wave model accounted for a number of phenomena, including diffraction, reflection, refraction, interference, and polarization, or a change in the oscillation patterns of a light wave. Four years after publishing this important work, Fresnel put his ideas into action, using the transverse model to create a pencil-beam of light that was ideal for lighthouses. This prism system, whereby all the light emitted from a source is refracted into a horizontal beam, replaced the older method of mirrors used since ancient times. Thus Fresnel's work revolutionized the effectiveness of lighthouses, and helped save lives of countless sailors at sea.
The term "Fresnel diffraction" refers to a situation in which the light source or the screen are close to the aperture; but there are situations in which source, aperture, and screen (or at least two of the three) are widely separated. This is known as Fraunhofer diffraction, after German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826), who in 1814 discovered the lines of the solar spectrum (source) while using a prism (aperture). His work had an enormous impact in the area of spectroscopy, or studies of the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter.