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.