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Light

PostPosted: May 7th, 2012, 10:32 pm
by Jessica
Light is a very complex phenomenon, but in many situations its behavior can be understood with a simple model based on rays and wave fronts. A ray is a thin beam of light that travels in a straight line. A wave front is the line (not necessarily straight) or surface connecting all the light that left a source at the same time. For a source like the Sun, rays radiate out in all directions; the wave fronts are spheres centered on the Sun. If the source is a long way away, the wave fronts can be treated as parallel lines.

Rays and wave fronts can generally be used to represent light when the light is interacting with objects that are much larger than the wavelength of light, which is about 500 nm. In particular, we'll use rays and wave fronts to analyze how light interacts with mirrors and lenses.


The law of reflection
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For objects such as mirrors, with surfaces so smooth that any hills or valleys on the surface are smaller than the wavelength of light, the law of reflection applies on a large scale. All the light travelling in one direction and reflecting from the mirror is reflected in one direction; reflection from such objects is known as specular reflection.

Most objects exhibit diffuse reflection, with light being reflected in all directions. All objects obey the law of reflection on a microscopic level, but if the irregularities on the surface of an object are larger than the wavelength of light, which is usually the case, the light reflects off in all directions.

A little geometry

Dealing with light in terms of rays is known as geometrical optics, for good reason: there is a lot of geometry involved. It's relatively straight-forward geometry, all based on similar triangles, but we should review that for a plane mirror.

Consider an object placed a certain distance in front of a mirror, as shown in the diagram. To figure out where the image of this object is located, a ray diagram can be used. In a ray diagram, rays of light are drawn from the object to the mirror, along with the rays that reflect off the mirror. The image will be found where the reflected rays intersect. Note that the reflected rays obey the law of reflection. What you notice is that the reflected rays diverge from the mirror; they must be extended back to find the place where they intersect, and that's where the image is.
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