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.