When Light Hits an Object
When a light wave hits an object, what happens to it depends on the energy of the light wave, the natural frequency at which electrons vibrate in the material and the strength with which the atoms in the material hold on to their electrons. Based on these three factors, four different things can happen when light hits an object:
  • The waves can be reflected or scattered off the object.
  • The waves can be absorbed by the object.
  • The waves can be refracted through the object.
  • The waves can pass through the object with no effect.
And more than one of these possibilities can happen at once. The following five illustrations show these possibilities, with reflection and scattering illustrated separately.

  • Transmission - If the frequency or energy of the incoming light wave is much higher or much lower than the frequency needed to make the electrons in the material vibrate, then the electrons will not capture the energy of the light, and the wave will pass through the material unchanged. As a result, the material will be transparent to that frequency of light.

Most materials are transparent to some frequencies, but not to others. For example, high frequency light, such as gamma rays and X-rays, will pass through ordinary glass, but lower frequency ultraviolet and infrared light will not.

You can read more about what makes glass transparent on this page.

  • Absorption - In absorption, the frequency of the incoming light wave is at or near the vibration frequency of the electrons in the material. The electrons take in the energy of the light wave and start to vibrate. What happens next depends upon how tightly the atoms hold on to their electrons. Absorption occurs when the electrons are held tightly, and they pass the vibrations along to the nuclei of the atoms. This makes the atoms speed up, collide with other atoms in the material, and then give up as heat the energy they acquired from the vibrations.

The absorption of light makes an object dark or opaque to the frequency of the incoming wave. Wood is opaque to visible light. Some materials are opaque to some frequencies of light, but transparent to others. Glass is opaque to ultraviolet light, but transparent to visible light.

  • Reflection and Scattering: The atoms in some materials hold on to their electrons loosely. In other words, the materials contain many free electrons that can jump readily from one atom to another within the material. When the electrons in this type of material absorb energy from an incoming light wave, they do not pass that energy on to other atoms. The energized electrons merely vibrate and then send the energy back out of the object as a light wave with the same frequency as the incoming wave. The overall effect is that the light wave does not penetrate deeply into the material.

In most metals, electrons are held loosely, and are free to move around, so these metals reflect visible light and appear to be shiny. The electrons in glass have some freedom, though not as much as in metals. To a lesser degree, glass reflects light and appears to be shiny, as well.

A reflected wave always comes off the surface of a material at an angle equal to the angle at which the incoming wave hit the surface. In physics, this is called the Law of Reflectance. You have probably heard the Law of Reflectance stated as "the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection."

You can see for yourself that reflected light has the same frequency as the incoming wave. Just look at yourself in a mirror. The colors you see in the mirror's image are the same as those you see when you look down at yourself. The colors of your shirt and hair are the same as reflected in the mirror as they are on you. If this were not true, we would have to rely entirely on other people to tell us what we look like!

Scattering is merely reflection off a rough surface. Incoming light waves get reflected at all sorts of angles, because the surface is uneven. The surface of paper is a good example. You can see just how rough it is if you look at it under a microscope. When light hits paper, the waves are reflected in all directions. This is what makes paper so incredibly useful -- you can read the words on a printed page regardless of the angle at which your eyes view the surface.

Another interesting rough surface is Earth's atmosphere. You probably don't think of the atmosphere as a surface, but it nonetheless is "rough" to incoming white light. The atmosphere contains molecules of many different sizes, including nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor and various pollutants. This assortment scatters the higher energy light waves, the ones we see as blue light. This is why the sky looks blue.

  • Refraction - Refraction occurs when the energy of an incoming light wave matches the natural vibration frequency of the electrons in a material. The light wave penetrates deeply into the material, and causes small vibrations in the electrons. The electrons pass these vibrations on to the atoms in the material, and they send out light waves of the same frequency as the incoming wave. But this all takes time. The part of the wave inside the material slows down, while the part of the wave outside the object maintains its original frequency. This has the effect of bending the portion of the wave inside the object toward what is called the normal line, an imaginary straight line that runs perpendicular to the surface of the object. The deviation from the normal line of the light inside the object will be less than the deviation of the light before it entered the object.

The amount of bending, or angle of refraction, of the light wave depends on how much the material slows down the light. Diamonds would not be so glittery if they did not slow down incoming light much more than, say, water does. Diamonds have a higher index of refraction than water, which is to say that they slow down light to a greater degree.

One interesting note about refraction is that light of different frequencies, or energies, will bend at slightly different angles. Let's compare violet light and red light when they enter a glass prism. Because violet light has more energy, it takes longer to interact with the glass. As such, it is slowed down to a greater extent than a wave of red light, and will be bent to a greater degree. This accounts for the order of the colors that we see in a rainbow. It is also what gives a diamond the rainbow fringes that make it so pleasing to the eye.