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.