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The Sun is Earth's primary source of light. About 44% of the sun's electromagnetic radiation that reaches the ground is in the visible light range.

Visible light (commonly referred to simply as light) is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light has a wavelength in the range of about 380 nanometres to about 740 nm – between the invisible infrared, with longer wavelengths and the invisible ultraviolet, with shorter wavelengths.

Primary properties of visible light are intensity, propagation direction, frequency or wavelength spectrum, and polarisation, while its speed in a vacuum, 299,792,458 meters per second, is one of the fundamental constants of nature. Visible light, as with all types of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), is experimentally found to always move at this speed in vacuum.

In common with all types of EMR, visible light is emitted and absorbed in tiny "packets" called photons, and exhibits properties of both waves and particles. This property is referred to as the wave–particle duality. The study of light, known as optics, is an important research area in modern physics.

In physics, the term light sometimes refers to electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, whether visible or not. This article focuses on visible light. See the electromagnetic radiation article for the general term.

Speed of visible light

The speed of light in a vacuum is defined to be exactly 299,792,458  m/s (approximately 186,282 miles per second). The fixed value of the speed of light in SI units results from the fact that the metre is now defined in terms of the speed of light. All forms of electromagnetic radiation are believed to move at exactly this same speed in vacuum.

Different physicists have attempted to measure the speed of light throughout history. Galileo attempted to measure the speed of light in the seventeenth century. An early experiment to measure the speed of light was conducted by Ole Rømer, a Danish physicist, in 1676. Using a telescope, Rømer observed the motions of Jupiter and one of its moons, Io. Noting discrepancies in the apparent period of Io's orbit, he calculated that light takes about 22 minutes to traverse the diameter of Earth's orbit. However, its size was not known at that time. If Rømer had known the diameter of the Earth's orbit, he would have calculated a speed of 227,000,000 m/s.

Another, more accurate, measurement of the speed of light was performed in Europe by Hippolyte Fizeau in 1849. Fizeau directed a beam of light at a mirror several kilometers away. A rotating cog wheel was placed in the path of the light beam as it traveled from the source, to the mirror and then returned to its origin. Fizeau found that at a certain rate of rotation, the beam would pass through one gap in the wheel on the way out and the next gap on the way back. Knowing the distance to the mirror, the number of teeth on the wheel, and the rate of rotation, Fizeau was able to calculate the speed of light as 313,000,000 m/s.

Léon Foucault used an experiment which used rotating mirrors to obtain a value of 298,000,000 m/s in 1862. Albert A. Michelson conducted experiments on the speed of light from 1877 until his death in 1931. He refined Foucault's methods in 1926 using improved rotating mirrors to measure the time it took light to make a round trip from Mt. Wilson to Mt. San Antonio in California. The precise measurements yielded a speed of 299,796,000 m/s.

The effective velocity of light in various transparent substances containing ordinary matter, is less than in vacuum. For example the speed of light in water is about 3/4 of that in vacuum. However, the slowing process in matter is thought to result not from actual slowing of particles of light, but rather from their absorption and re-emission from charged particles in matter.

As an extreme example of the nature of light-slowing in matter, two independent teams of physicists were able to bring light to a "complete standstill" by passing it through a Bose-Einstein Condensate of the element rubidium, one team at Harvard University and the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge, Mass., and the other at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, also in Cambridge. However, the popular description of light being "stopped" in these experiments refers only to light being stored in the excited states of atoms, then re-emitted at an arbitrary later time, as stimulated by a second laser pulse. During the time it had "stopped" it had ceased to be light.

Electromagnetic spectrum and visible light

Electromagnetic spectrum with light highlighted

Generally, EM radiation, or EMR (the designation 'radiation' excludes static electric and magnetic and near fields) is classified by wavelength into radio, microwave, infrared, the visible region that we perceive as light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.

The behaviour of EMR depends on its wavelength. Higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths, and lower frequencies have longer wavelengths. When EMR interacts with single atoms and molecules, its behaviour depends on the amount of energy per quantum it carries.

EMR in the visible light region consists of quanta (called photons) that are at the lower end of the energies that are capable of causing electronic excitation within molecules, which lead to changes in the bonding or chemistry of the molecule. At the lower end of the visible light spectrum, EMR becomes invisible to humans ( infrared) because its photons no longer have enough individual energy to cause a lasting molecular change (a change in conformation) in the visual molecule retinal in the human retina. This change triggers the sensation of vision.

There exist animals that are sensitive to various types of infrared, but not by means of quantum-absorption. Infrared sensing in snakes depends on a kind of natural thermal imaging, in which tiny packets of cellular water are raised in temperature by the infrared radiation. EMR in this range causes molecular vibration and heating effects, and this is how living animals detect it.

Above the range of visible light, ultraviolet light becomes invisible to humans, mostly because it is absorbed by the tissues of the eye and in particular the lens. Furthermore, the rods and cones located at the back of the human eye cannot detect the short ultraviolet wavelengths, and are in fact damaged by ultraviolet rays, a condition known as snow eye. Many animals with eyes that do not require lenses (such as insects and shrimp) are able to directly detect ultraviolet visually, by quantum photon-absorption mechanisms, in much the same chemical way that normal humans detect visible light.


The study of light and the interaction of light and matter is termed optics. The observation and study of optical phenomena such as rainbows and the aurora borealis offer many clues as to the nature of light.


An example of refraction of light. The straw appears bent, because of refraction of light as it enters liquid from air.
A cloud illuminated by sunlight

Refraction is the bending of light rays when passing through a surface between one transparent material and another. It is described by Snell's Law:

n_1\sin\theta_1 = n_2\sin\theta_2\ .

where \theta_1 is the angle between the ray and the surface normal in the first medium, \theta_2 is the angle between the ray and the surface normal in the second medium, and n1 and n2 are the indices of refraction, n = 1 in a vacuum and n > 1 in a transparent substance.

When a beam of light crosses the boundary between a vacuum and another medium, or between two different media, the wavelength of the light changes, but the frequency remains constant. If the beam of light is not orthogonal (or rather normal) to the boundary, the change in wavelength results in a change in the direction of the beam. This change of direction is known as refraction.

The refractive quality of lenses is frequently used to manipulate light in order to change the apparent size of images. Magnifying glasses, spectacles, contact lenses, microscopes and refracting telescopes are all examples of this manipulation.

Units and measures

Light is measured with two main alternative sets of units: radiometry consists of measurements of light power at all wavelengths, while photometry measures light with wavelength weighted with respect to a standardised model of human brightness perception. Photometry is useful, for example, to quantify Illumination (lighting) intended for human use. The SI units for both systems are summarised in the following tables.

Table 1. SI radiometry units
Quantity Symbol SI unit Symbol Dimension Notes
Radiant energy Qe joule J M⋅L2⋅T−2 energy
Radiant flux Φe watt W M⋅L2⋅T−3 radiant energy per unit time, also called radiant  power.
Spectral power Φ watt per metre W⋅m−1 M⋅L⋅T−3 radiant power per wavelength.
Radiant intensity Ie watt per steradian W⋅ sr−1 M⋅L2⋅T−3 power per unit solid angle.
Spectral intensity I watt per steradian per metre W⋅sr−1⋅m−1 M⋅L⋅T−3 radiant intensity per wavelength.
Radiance Le watt per steradian per square metre W⋅sr−1 m−2 M⋅T−3 power per unit solid angle per unit projected source area.

confusingly called " intensity" in some other fields of study.

Spectral radiance L
watt per steradian per metre3

watt per steradian per square
metre per hertz

W⋅sr−1 m−3
W⋅sr−1⋅m−2 Hz−1
commonly measured in W⋅sr−1⋅m−2⋅nm−1 with surface area and either wavelength or frequency.

Irradiance Ee watt per square metre W⋅m−2 M⋅T−3 power incident on a surface, also called radiant flux density.

sometimes confusingly called " intensity" as well.

Spectral irradiance E
watt per metre3
watt per square metre per hertz
commonly measured in W⋅m−2 nm−1
or 10−22W⋅m−2⋅Hz−1, known as solar flux unit.

Radiant exitance /
Radiant emittance
Me watt per square metre W⋅m−2 M⋅T−3 power emitted from a surface.
Spectral radiant exitance /
Spectral radiant emittance
watt per metre3

watt per square
metre per hertz

power emitted from a surface per wavelength or frequency.

Radiosity Je or J watt per square metre W⋅m−2 M⋅T−3 emitted plus reflected power leaving a surface.
Radiant exposure He joule per square metre J⋅m−2 M⋅T−2
Radiant energy density ωe joule per metre3 J⋅m−3 M⋅L−1⋅T−2
See also: SI · Radiometry · Photometry · (Compare)

Table 2. SI photometry units
Quantity Symbol SI unit Symbol Dimension Notes
Luminous energy Qv  lumen second lm⋅s T⋅J  units are sometimes called talbots
Luminous flux Φ v  lumen (= cd⋅ sr) lm also called luminous power
Luminous intensity Iv candela (= lm/sr) cd an SI base unit, luminous flux per unit solid angle
Luminance Lv candela per square metre cd/m2 L−2⋅J units are sometimes called nits
Illuminance Ev lux (= lm/m2) lx L−2⋅J used for light incident on a surface
Luminous emittance Mv lux (= lm/m2) lx L−2⋅J used for light emitted from a surface
Luminous exposure Hv lux second lx⋅s L−2⋅T⋅J
Luminous energy density ωv lumen second per metre3 lm⋅ s⋅ m−3 L−3⋅T⋅J
Luminous efficacy η  lumen per watt lm/ W M−1⋅L−2⋅T3⋅J ratio of luminous flux to radiant flux
Luminous efficiency V 1 also called luminous coefficient
See also: SI · Photometry · Radiometry · (Compare)

The photometry units are different from most systems of physical units in that they take into account how the human eye responds to light. The cone cells in the human eye are of three types which respond differently across the visible spectrum, and the cumulative response peaks at a wavelength of around 555 nm. Therefore, two sources of light which produce the same intensity (W/m2) of visible light do not necessarily appear equally bright. The photometry units are designed to take this into account, and therefore are a better representation of how "bright" a light appears to be than raw intensity. They relate to raw power by a quantity called luminous efficacy, and are used for purposes like determining how to best achieve sufficient illumination for various tasks in indoor and outdoor settings. The illumination measured by a photocell sensor does not necessarily correspond to what is perceived by the human eye, and without filters which may be costly, photocells and charge-coupled devices (CCD) tend to respond to some infrared, ultraviolet or both.

Light pressure

Light exerts physical pressure on objects in its path, a phenomenon which can be deduced by Maxwell's equations, but can be more easily explained by the particle nature of light: photons strike and transfer their momentum. Light pressure is equal to the power of the light beam divided by c, the speed of light.  Due to the magnitude of c, the effect of light pressure is negligible for everyday objects.  For example, a one- milliwatt laser pointer exerts a force of about 3.3 piconewtons on the object being illuminated; thus, one could lift a U. S. penny with laser pointers, but doing so would require about 30 billion 1-mW laser pointers.  However, in nanometer-scale applications such as NEMS, the effect of light pressure is more significant, and exploiting light pressure to drive NEMS mechanisms and to flip nanometer-scale physical switches in integrated circuits is an active area of research.

At larger scales, light pressure can cause asteroids to spin faster, acting on their irregular shapes as on the vanes of a windmill.  The possibility to make solar sails that would accelerate spaceships in space is also under investigation.

Although the motion of the Crookes radiometer was originally attributed to light pressure, this interpretation is incorrect; the characteristic Crookes rotation is the result of a partial vacuum. This should not be confused with the Nichols radiometer, in which the (slight) motion caused by torque (though not enough for full rotation against friction) is directly caused by light pressure.

Historical theories about light, in chronological order

Classical Greece and Hellenism

In the fifth century BC, Empedocles postulated that everything was composed of four elements; fire, air, earth and water. He believed that Aphrodite made the human eye out of the four elements and that she lit the fire in the eye which shone out from the eye making sight possible. If this were true, then one could see during the night just as well as during the day, so Empedocles postulated an interaction between rays from the eyes and rays from a source such as the sun.

In about 300 BC, Euclid wrote Optica, in which he studied the properties of light. Euclid postulated that light travelled in straight lines and he described the laws of reflection and studied them mathematically. He questioned that sight is the result of a beam from the eye, for he asks how one sees the stars immediately, if one closes one's eyes, then opens them at night. Of course if the beam from the eye travels infinitely fast this is not a problem.

In 55 BC, Lucretius, a Roman who carried on the ideas of earlier Greek atomists, wrote:

"The light & heat of the sun; these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove." – On the nature of the Universe

Despite being similar to later particle theories, Lucretius's views were not generally accepted.

Ptolemy (c. 2nd century) wrote about the refraction of light in his book Optics.

Classical India

In ancient India, the Hindu schools of Samkhya and Vaisheshika, from around the early centuries CE developed theories on light. According to the Samkhya school, light is one of the five fundamental "subtle" elements (tanmatra) out of which emerge the gross elements. The atomicity of these elements is not specifically mentioned and it appears that they were actually taken to be continuous.

On the other hand, the Vaisheshika school gives an atomic theory of the physical world on the non-atomic ground of ether, space and time. (See Indian atomism.) The basic atoms are those of earth (prthivi), water (pani), fire (agni), and air (vayu) Light rays are taken to be a stream of high velocity of tejas (fire) atoms. The particles of light can exhibit different characteristics depending on the speed and the arrangements of the tejas atoms. The Vishnu Purana refers to sunlight as "the seven rays of the sun".

The Indian Buddhists, such as Dignāga in the 5th century and Dharmakirti in the 7th century, developed a type of atomism that is a philosophy about reality being composed of atomic entities that are momentary flashes of light or energy. They viewed light as being an atomic entity equivalent to energy.


René Descartes (1596–1650) held that light was a mechanical property of the luminous body, rejecting the "forms" of Ibn al-Haytham and Witelo as well as the "species" of Bacon, Grosseteste, and Kepler. In 1637 he published a theory of the refraction of light that assumed, incorrectly, that light travelled faster in a denser medium than in a less dense medium. Descartes arrived at this conclusion by analogy with the behaviour of sound waves. Although Descartes was incorrect about the relative speeds, he was correct in assuming that light behaved like a wave and in concluding that refraction could be explained by the speed of light in different media.

Descartes is not the first to use the mechanical analogies but because he clearly asserts that light is only a mechanical property of the luminous body and the transmitting medium, Descartes' theory of light is regarded as the start of modern physical optics.

Particle theory

Pierre Gassendi.

Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), an atomist, proposed a particle theory of light which was published posthumously in the 1660s. Isaac Newton studied Gassendi's work at an early age, and preferred his view to Descartes' theory of the plenum. He stated in his Hypothesis of Light of 1675 that light was composed of corpuscles (particles of matter) which were emitted in all directions from a source. One of Newton's arguments against the wave nature of light was that waves were known to bend around obstacles, while light travelled only in straight lines. He did, however, explain the phenomenon of the diffraction of light (which had been observed by Francesco Grimaldi) by allowing that a light particle could create a localised wave in the aether.

Newton's theory could be used to predict the reflection of light, but could only explain refraction by incorrectly assuming that light accelerated upon entering a denser medium because the gravitational pull was greater. Newton published the final version of his theory in his Opticks of 1704. His reputation helped the particle theory of light to hold sway during the 18th century. The particle theory of light led Laplace to argue that a body could be so massive that light could not escape from it. In other words it would become what is now called a black hole. Laplace withdrew his suggestion later, after a wave theory of light became firmly established as the model for light (as has been explained, neither a particle or wave theory is fully correct). A translation of Newton's essay on light appears in The large scale structure of space-time, by Stephen Hawking and George F. R. Ellis.

Wave theory

To explain the origin of colors, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) developed a "pulse theory" and compared the spreading of light to that of waves in water in his 1665 Micrographia ("Observation XI"). In 1672 Hooke suggested that light's vibrations could be perpendicular to the direction of propagation. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) worked out a mathematical wave theory of light in 1678, and published it in his Treatise on light in 1690. He proposed that light was emitted in all directions as a series of waves in a medium called the Luminiferous ether. As waves are not affected by gravity, it was assumed that they slowed down upon entering a denser medium.

Thomas Young's sketch of the two-slit experiment showing the diffraction of light. Young's experiments supported the theory that light consists of waves.

The wave theory predicted that light waves could interfere with each other like sound waves (as noted around 1800 by Thomas Young), and that light could be polarised, if it were a transverse wave. Young showed by means of a diffraction experiment that light behaved as waves. He also proposed that different colours were caused by different wavelengths of light, and explained colour vision in terms of three-coloured receptors in the eye.

Another supporter of the wave theory was Leonhard Euler. He argued in Nova theoria lucis et colorum (1746) that diffraction could more easily be explained by a wave theory.

Later, Augustin-Jean Fresnel independently worked out his own wave theory of light, and presented it to the Académie des Sciences in 1817. Simeon Denis Poisson added to Fresnel's mathematical work to produce a convincing argument in favour of the wave theory, helping to overturn Newton's corpuscular theory. By the year 1821, Fresnel was able to show via mathematical methods that polarisation could be explained only by the wave theory of light and only if light was entirely transverse, with no longitudinal vibration whatsoever.

The weakness of the wave theory was that light waves, like sound waves, would need a medium for transmission. The existence of the hypothetical substance luminiferous aether proposed by Huygens in 1678 was cast into strong doubt in the late nineteenth century by the Michelson-Morley experiment.

Newton's corpuscular theory implied that light would travel faster in a denser medium, while the wave theory of Huygens and others implied the opposite. At that time, the speed of light could not be measured accurately enough to decide which theory was correct. The first to make a sufficiently accurate measurement was Léon Foucault, in 1850. His result supported the wave theory, and the classical particle theory was finally abandoned, only to partly re-emerge in the 20th century.

Quantum theory

In 1900 Max Planck, attempting to explain black body radiation suggested that although light was a wave, these waves could gain or lose energy only in finite amounts related to their frequency. Planck called these "lumps" of light energy "quanta" (from a Latin word for "how much." In 1905, Albert Einstein used the idea of light quanta to explain the photoelectric effect, and suggested that these light quanta had a "real" existence. In 1923 Arthur Holly Compton showed that the wavelength shift seen when low intensity X-rays scattered from electrons (so called Compton scattering) could be explained by a particle-theory of X-rays, but not a wave theory. In 1926 Gilbert N. Lewis named these liqht quanta particles photons.

Eventually the modern theory of quantum quantum mechanics came to picture light as (in some sense) both a particle and a wave, and (in another sense), as a phenomenon which is neither a particle nor a wave (which actually are macroscopic phenomena, such as baseballs or ocean waves). Instead, modern physics sees light as something that can be described sometimes with mathematics appropriate to one type of macroscopic metaphor (particles), and sometimes another macroscopic metaphor (water waves), but is actually something that cannot be fully imagined. As in the case for radio waves and the X-rays involved in Compton scattering, physicists have noted that electromagnetic radiation tends to behave more like a classical wave at lower frequencies, but more like a classical particle at higher frequencies, but never completely loses all qualities of one or the other. Visible light, which occupies a middle ground in frequency, can easily be shown in experiments to be describable using either a wave or particle model, or sometimes both.

Electromagnetic theory as explanation for all types of visible light and all EM radiation

A linearly polarised light wave frozen in time and showing the two oscillating components of light; an electric field and a magnetic field perpendicular to each other and to the direction of motion (a transverse wave).

In 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that the plane of polarisation of linearly polarised light is rotated when the light rays travel along the magnetic field direction in the presence of a transparent dielectric, an effect now known as Faraday rotation. This was the first evidence that light was related to electromagnetism. In 1846 he speculated that light might be some form of disturbance propagating along magnetic field lines. Faraday proposed in 1847 that light was a high-frequency electromagnetic vibration, which could propagate even in the absence of a medium such as the ether.

Faraday's work inspired James Clerk Maxwell to study electromagnetic radiation and light. Maxwell discovered that self-propagating electromagnetic waves would travel through space at a constant speed, which happened to be equal to the previously measured speed of light. From this, Maxwell concluded that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation: he first stated this result in 1862 in On Physical Lines of Force. In 1873, he published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which contained a full mathematical description of the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields, still known as Maxwell's equations. Soon after, Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell's theory experimentally by generating and detecting radio waves in the laboratory, and demonstrating that these waves behaved exactly like visible light, exhibiting properties such as reflection, refraction, diffraction, and interference. Maxwell's theory and Hertz's experiments led directly to the development of modern radio, radar, television, electromagnetic imaging, and wireless communications.

In the quantum theory, photons are seen as wave packets of the waves described in the classical theory of Maxwell. The quantum theory was needed to explain effects even with visual light that Maxwell's classical theory could not (such as spectral lines).

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