Light exists along a relatively narrow bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the region of visible light is more narrow still. Yet, within that realm are an almost infinite array of hues that quite literally give color to the entire world of human experience. Light, of course, is more than color: it is energy, which travels at incredible speeds throughout the universe. From prehistoric times, humans harnessed light’s power through fire, and later, through the invention of illumination devices such as candles and gas lamps. In the late nineteenth century, the first electric-powered forms of light were invented, which created a revolution in human existence. Today, the power of lasers, highly focused beams of high-intensity light, make possible a number of technologies used in everything from surgery to entertainment.


Early Progress in Understanding of Light

The first useful observations concerning light came from ancient Greece. The Greeks recognized that light travels through air in rays, a term from geometry describing that part of a straight line that extends in one direction only. Upon entering some denser medium, such as glass or water, as Greek scientists noticed, the ray experiences refraction, or bending. Another type of incidence, or contact, between a light ray and any surface, is reflection, whereby a light ray returns, rather than being absorbed at the interface.
The Greeks worked out the basic laws governing reflection and refraction, observing, for instance, that in reflection, the angle of incidence is approximately equal to the angle of reflection. Unfortunately, they also subscribed to the erroneous concept of intromission—the belief that light rays originate in the eye and travel toward objects, making them visible. Some 1,500 years after the high point of Greek civilization, Arab physicist Alhasen (Ibn al-Haytham; c. 965-1039), sometimes called the greatest scientist of the Middle Ages, showed that light comes from a source such as the Sun, and reflects from an object to the eyes.
The next great era of progress in studies of light began with the Renaissance (c. 1300-c. 1600.) However, the most profound scientific achievements in this area belonged not to scientists, but to painters, who were fascinated by color, shading, shadows, and other properties of light. During the early seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) built the first refracting telescopes, while Dutch physicist and mathematician Willebrord Snell (15801626) further refined the laws of refraction.

The Spectrum

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was as intrigued with light as he was with gravity and the other concepts associated with his work. Though it was not as epochal as his contributions to mechanics, Newton’s work in optics, an area of physics that studies the production and propagation of light, was certainly significant.
In Newton’s time, physicists understood that a prism could be used for the diffusion of light rays—in particular, to produce an array of colors from a beam of white light. The prevailing belief was that white was a single color like the others, but Newton maintained that it was a combination of all other colors. To prove this, he directed a beam of white light through a prism, then allowed the diffused colors to enter another prism, at which point they recombined as white
Newton gave to the array of colors in visible light the term spectrum, (plural, “spectra”) meaning the continuous distribution of properties in an ordered arrangement across an unbroken range. The term can be used for any set of characteristics for which there is a gradation, as opposed to an excluded middle. An ordinary light switch provides an example of a situation in which there is an excluded middle: there is nothing between “on” and “off.” A dimmer switch, on the other hand, is a spectrum, because a very large number of gradations exist between the two extremes represented by a light switch.
Seven colors…or six? The distribution of colors across the spectrum is as follows: red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet. The reasons for this arrangement, explained below in the context of the electromagnetic spectrum, were unknown to Newton. Not only did he live in an age that had almost no understanding of electromagnetism, but he was also a product of the era called the Enlightenment, when intellectuals (scientists included) viewed the world as a highly rational, ordered mechanism. His Enlightenment viewpoint undoubtedly influenced his interpretation of the spectrum as a set of seven colors, just as there are seven notes on the musical scale.
In addition to the six basic colors listed above, Newton identified a seventh, indigo, between blue and violet. In fact, there is a noticeable band of color between blue and violet, but this is because one color fades into another. With a spectrum, there is a blurring of lines between one color and the next: for instance, orange exists at a certain point along the spectrum, as does yellow, but between them is a nearly unlimited number of orange-yellow and yellow-orange gradations.
Indigo itself is not really a distinct color— just a deep, purplish blue. But its inclusion in the listing of colors on the spectrum has given generations of students a handy mnemonic (memorization) device: the name “ROY G. BIV.” These letters form an acrostic (a word constructed from the first letters of other words) for the colors of the spectrum. Incidentally, there is something arbitrary even in the idea of six colors, or for that matter seven musical notes: in both cases, there exists a very large gradation of shades, yet also in both cases, the divisions used were chosen for practical purposes.

Waves, Particles, and Other Questions Concerning Light

the wave-particle controversy begins. Newton subscribed to the corpuscular theory of light: the idea that light travels as a stream of particles. On the other hand, Dutch physicist and astronomer Christian Huygens (1629-1695) maintained that light travels in waves. During the century that followed, adherents of particle theory did intellectual battle with proponents of wave theory. “Battle” is not too strong a word, because the conflict was heated, and had a nationalistic element. Reflecting both the burgeoning awareness of the nation-state among Europeans, as well as Britons’ sense of their own island as an entity separate from the European continent, particle theory had its strongest defenders in Newton’s homeland, while continental scientists generally accepted wave theory.
According to Huygens, the appearance of the spectrum, as well as the phenomena of reflection and refraction, indicated that light was a wave. Newton responded by furnishing complex mathematical calculations which showed that particles could exhibit the behaviors of reflection and refraction as well. Furthermore, Newton challenged, if light were really a wave, it should be able to bend around corners. Yet, in 1660, an experiment by Italian physicist Francesco Grimaldi (1618-1663) proved that light could do just that. Passing a beam of light through a narrow aperture, or opening, Grimaldi observed a phenomenon called diffraction, or the bending of light.
In view of the nationalistic character that the wave-particle debate assumed, it was ironic that the physicist whose work struck a particularly forceful blow against corpuscular theory was himself an Englishman: Thomas Young (17731829), who in 1801 demonstrated interference in light. Directing a light beam through two closely spaced pinholes onto a screen, Young reasoned that if light truly were made of particles, the beams would project two distinct points onto the screen. Instead, what he saw was a pattern of interference—a wave phenomenon.

The question of a medium

As the nineteenth century progressed, evidence in favor of wave theory grew. Experiments in 1850 by Jean Bernard Leon Foucault (1819-1868)—famous for his pendulum —showed that light traveled faster in air than through water. Based on studies of wave motion up to that time, Foucault’s work added substance to the view of light as a wave.
Foucault also measured the speed of light in a vacuum, a speed which he calculated to within 1% of its value as it is known today: 186,000 mi (299,339 km) per second. An understanding of just how fast light traveled, however, caused a nagging question dating back to the days of Newton and Huygens to resurface: how did light travel?
All types of waves known to that time traveled through some sort of medium: for instance, sound waves were propagated through air, water, or some other type of matter. If light was a wave, as Huygens said, then it, too, must have some medium. Huygens and his followers proposed a weak theory by suggesting the existence of an invisible substance called ether, which existed throughout the universe and which carried light.
Ether, of course, was really no answer at all. There was no evidence that it existed, and to many scientists, it was merely a concept invented to shore up an otherwise convincing argument. Then, in 1872, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) proposed a solution that must have surprised many scientists. The “medium” through which light travels, Maxwell proposed, was no medium at all; rather, the energy in light is transferred by means of radiation, which requires no medium.


Maxwell brought together a number of concepts developed by his predecessors, sorting these out and adding to them. His work led to the identification of a “new” fundamental interaction, in addition to that associated with gravity. This was the mode of particle interaction associated with electromagnetic force.
The particulars of electromagnetic force, waves, and radiation are a subject unto them-selves—really, many subjects. As for the electromagnetic spectrum, it is treated at some length in an essay elsewhere in this volume, and the reader is encouraged to review that essay to gain a greater understanding of light and its place in the spectrum.
In addition, some awareness of wave motion and related phenomena would also be of great value, and, for this purpose, other essays are recommended. In the present context, a number of topics relating to these larger subjects will be handled in short order, with a minimum of explanation, to enable a more speedy transition to the subject ofprincipal importance here: light.

Electromagnetic waves

There is, of course, no obvious connection between light and the electromagnetic force observed in electrical and magnetic interactions. Yet, light is an example of an electromagnetic wave, and is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The breakthrough in establishing the electromagnetic quality of light can be attributed both to Maxwell and German physicist Heinrich RudolfHertz (1857-1894).
In his Electricity and Magnetism (1873), Maxwell suggested that electromagnetic force might have aspects of a wave phenomenon, and his experiments indicated that electromagnetic waves should travel at exactly the same speed as light. This appeared to be more than just a coincidence, and his findings led him to theorize that the electromagnetic interaction included not only electricity and magnetism, but light as well. Some time later, Hertz proved Maxwell’s hypothesis by showing that electromagnetic waves obeyed the same laws of reflection, refraction, and diffraction as light.
Hertz also discovered the photoelectric effect, the process by which certain metals acquire an electrical potential when exposed to light. He could not explain this behavior, and, indeed, there was nothing in wave theory that could account for it. Strangely, after more than a century in which acceptance of wave theory had grown, he had encountered something that apparently supported what Newton had said long before: that light traveled in particles rather than waves.

The Wave-Particle Debate Revisited

One of the modern physicists whose name is most closely associated with the subject of light is Albert Einstein (1879-1955). In the course of proving that matter is convertible to energy, as he did with the theory of relativity, Einstein predicted that this could be illustrated by accelerating to speeds close to that of light. (Conversely, he also showed that it is impossible for matter to reach the speed of light, because to do so would—as he proved mathematically—result in the matter acquiring an infinite amount of mass, which, of course, is impossible.)
Much of Einstein’s work was influenced by that of German physicist Max Planck (18581947), father of quantum theory. Quantum theory and quantum mechanics are, of course, far too complicated to explain in any depth here. It is enough to say that they called into question everything physicists thought they knew, based on Newton’s theories of classical mechanics. In particular, quantum mechanics showed that, at the subatomic level, particles behave in ways not just different from, but opposite to, the behavior of larger physical objects in the observable world. When a quantity is “quantized,” its values or properties at the atomic or subatomic level are separate from one another—meaning that something can both be one thing and its opposite, depending on how it is viewed.
Interpreting Planck’s observations, Einstein in a 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect maintained that light is quantized—that it appears in “bundles” of energy that have characteristics both of waves and of particles. Though light travels in waves, as Einstein showed, these waves sometimes behave as particles, which is the case with the photoelectric effect. Nearly two decades later, American physicist Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962) confirmed Einstein’s findings and gave a name to the “particles” of light: photons.

Light’s Place in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum is the complete range of electromagnetic waves on a continuous distribution from a very low range of frequencies and energy levels, with a correspondingly long wavelength, to a very high range of frequencies and energy levels, with a correspondingly short wavelength. Included on the electromagnetic spectrum are radio waves and microwaves; infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light; x rays, and gamma rays. As discussed earlier, concerning the visible color spectrum, each of these occupies a definite place on the spectrum, but the divisions between them are not firm: in keeping with the nature of a spectrum, one band simply “blurs” into another.
Of principal concern here is an area near the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum. Actually, the very middle of the spectrum lies within the broad area of infrared light, which has frequencies ranging from 1012 to just over 1014 Hz, with wavelengths of approximately 10-1 to 10-3 centimeters. Even at this point, the light waves are oscillating at a rate between 1 and 100 trillion times a second, and the wavelengths are from 1 millimeter to 0.01 millimeters. Yet, over the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths get much shorter, and frequencies much greater.
Infrared lies just below visible light in frequency, which is easy to remember because of the name: red is the lowest in frequency of all the colors, as discussed below. Similarly, ultraviolet lies beyond the highest-frequency color, violet. Neither infrared nor ultraviolet can be seen, yet we experience them as heat. In the case of ultraviolet (UV) light, the rays are so powerful that exposure to even the minuscule levels of UV radiation that enter Earth’s atmosphere can cause skin cancer.
Ultraviolet light occupies a much narrower band than infrared, in the area of about 1015 to 1016 Hz—in other words, oscillations between 1 and 10 quadrillion times a second. Wavelengths in this region are from just above 10-6 to about 10-7 centimeters. These are often measured in terms of a nanometer (nm)—equal to one-millionth of a millimeter—meaning that the wavelength range is from above 100 down to about 10 nm.
Between infrared and ultraviolet light is the region of visible light: the six colors that make up much of the world we know. Each has a specific range and frequency, and together they occupy an extremely narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum: from 4.3 • 1014 to 7.5 • 1014 Hz in frequency, and from 700 down to 400 nm in wavelength. To compare its frequency range to that of the entire spectrum, for instance, is the same as comparing 3.2 to 100 billion.



Unlike many of the topics addressed by physics, color is far from abstract. Numerous expressions in daily life describe the relationship between energy and color: “red hot,” for instance, or “blue with cold” In fact, however, red—with a smaller frequency and a longer wavelength than blue— actually has less energy; therefore, blue objects should be hotter.
The phenomenon of the red shift, discovered in 1923 by American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), provides a clue to this apparent contradiction. As Hubble observed, the light waves from distant galaxies are shifted to the red end, and he reasoned that this must mean those galaxies are moving away from the Milky Way, the galaxy in which Earth is located.
To generalize from what Hubble observed, when something shows red, it is moving away from the observer. The laws of thermodynamics state that where heat is involved, the movement is always away from an area of high temperature and toward an area of low temperature. Heated molecules that reflect red light are, thus, to use a colloquialism, “showing their tail end” as they move toward an area of low temperature. By contrast, molecules of low temperature reflect bluish or purple light because the tendency of heat is to move toward them.
There are other reasons, aside from heat, that some objects tend to be red and others blue—or another color. Chemical factors may be involved: atoms of neon, for example, can be made to vibrate at a particular wavelength, producing a specific color. In any case, the color that an object reflects is precisely the color that it does not absorb: thus, if something is red, that means it has absorbed every color of the spectrum but red.

Why is the sky blue?

The placement of colors on the electromagnetic spectrum provides an answer to that age-old question posed by generations of children to their parents: “Why is the sky blue?” Electromagnetic radiation is scattered as it enters the atmosphere, but all forms of radiation are not scattered equally. Those having shorter wavelengths—that is, toward the blue end of the spectrum—tend to scatter more than those with longer wavelengths, on the red and orange end.
Yet the longer-wavelength light becomes visible at sunset, when the Sun’s light enters the atmosphere at an angle. In addition, the dim quality of evening light means that it is easiest to see light of longer wavelengths. This effect is known as Rayleigh scattering, after English physicist John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919), who discovered it in 1871. Thanks to Rayleigh’s discovery, there is an explanation not only for the question of why the sky is blue, but why sunsets are red, orange, and gold.


On the subject of color as children perceive it, many a child has been fascinated by a rainbow, seeing in them something magical. It is easy to understand why children perceive these beautiful phenomena this way, and why people have invented stories such as that of the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. In fact, a rainbow, like many other “magical” aspects of daily life, can be explained in terms of physics.
A rainbow, in fact, is simply an illustration of the visible light spectrum. Rain drops perform the role of tiny prisms, dispersing white sunlight, much as scientists before Newton had learned to do. But if there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it would be impossible to find. In order for a rainbow to be seen, it must be viewed from a specific perspective: the observer must be in a position between the sunlight and the raindrops.
Sunlight strikes raindrops in such a way that they are refracted, then reflected back at an angle so that they represent the entire visible light spectrum. Though they are beautiful to see, rainbows are neither magical nor impossible to reproduce artificially. Such rainbows can be produced, for instance, in the spiral of small water droplets emerging from a water hose, viewed when one’s back is to the Sun.

Perception of Light and Color

People literally live and die for colors: the colors of a flag, for instance, present a rallying point for soldiers, and different colors are assigned specific political meanings. Blue, both in the American and French flags, typically stands for liberty. Red can symbolize the blood shed by patriots, or it can mean some version of fraternity or brotherhood. Such is the case with the red of the French tricolor (red-white-blue); likewise, the red in the flag of the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries stood for the alleged international brotherhood of all working peoples. In Islamic countries, by contrast, green stands for the unity of all Muslims.
These are just a few examples, drawn from a specific realm—politics—illustrating the meanings that people ascribe to colors. Similarly, people find meanings in images presented to them by light itself. In his Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.) offered a complex parable, intended to illustrate the difference between reality and illusion, concerning a group of slaves who do not recognize the difference between sunlight and the light of a torch in a cave. Modern writers have noted the similarities between Plato’s cave and a phenomenon which the ancient philosopher could hardly have imagined: a movie theatre, in which an artificial light projects images—images that people sometimes perceive as being all too real—onto a screen.
People refer to “tricks of the light,” as, for instance, when one seems to see an image in a fire. One particularly well-known “trick of the light,” a mirage, is discussed below, but there are also manmade illusions created by light, shapes, and images. An optical illusion is something that produces a false impression in the brain, causing one to believe that something is as it appears, when, in fact, it is not. When two lines of equal length are placed side by side, but one has arrows pointed outward at either end while the other line has arrows pointing inward, it appears that the line with the inward-pointing arrows are shorter.
This is an example of the ways in which human perception plays a role in what people see. That topic, of course, goes far beyond physics and into the realms of psychology and the social sciences. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to consider, from a physical standpoint, how humans see what they see—and sometimes see things that are not there.

A mirage

Because they can be demonstrated in light waves as well as in sound waves, diffraction and interference are discussed in separate essays. As for refraction, or the bending of light waves, this phenomenon can be seen in the familiar example of a mirage. While driving down a road on a hot day, one may observe that there are pools of water up ahead, but by the time one approaches them, they disappear.
Of course, the pools were never there; light itself has created an optical illusion of sorts. As light moves from one material to another, it bends with a different angle of refraction, and, though, in this instance, it is traveling entirely through air, it is moving through regions of differing temperature. Light waves travel faster through warm air than through cool air, and, thus, when the light enters the area over the heated surface of the asphalt, it experiences refraction. The waves are thus bent, creating the impression of a reflection, which suggests to the observer that there is water up ahead.

How the eye sees color

White, as noted earlier, is the combination of all colors; black is the absence of color. Where ink, dye, or other forms of artificial pigmentation are concerned, of course, black is a “real” color, but in terms of light, it is not. In the same way, the experience of coldness is real, yet “cold” does not exist as a physical phenomenon: it is simply the absence of heat.
The mixture of pigmentation is an entirely different matter from the mixture of light. In artificial pigmentation, the primary colors—the three colors which, when mixed, yield the remainder of the shades on the rainbow—are red, blue, and yellow. Red mixed with blue creates purple, blue mixed with yellow makes green, and red mixed with yellow yields orange. Black and white are usually created by using natural substances of that color—chalk for white, for instance, or various oxides for black. For light, on the other hand, blue and red are primary colors, but the third primary color is green, not yellow. From these three primary colors, all other shades of the visible spectrum can be made.
The mechanism of the human eye responds to the three primary colors of the visible light spectrum: thus, the eye’s retina is equipped with tiny cones that respond to red, blue, and green light. The cones respond to bright light; other structures called rods respond to dim light, and the pupil regulates the amount of light that enters the eye.
The eye responds with maximum sensitivity to light at the middle of the visible color spec-trum—specifically, green light with a wavelength of about 555 nm. The optimal wavelength for maximum sensitivity in dim light is around 510 nm, on the blue end. It is difficult for the eye to recognize red light, at the far end of the spectrum, against a dark background. However, this can be an advantage in situations of relative darkness, which is why red light is often used to maintain vision for sailors, amateur astronomers, and the military on night maneuvers. Because there is not much difference between the darkness and the red light, the eye adjusts and is able to see beyond the red light into the darkness. A bright yellow or white light in such situations, on the other hand, would minimize visibility in areas beyond the light.

Artificial Light

prehistoric lighting technology. Prehistoric humans did not know it, but they were making use of electromagnetic radiation when they lit and warmed their caves with light from a fire. Though it would seem that warmth was more essential to human survival than artificial light, in fact, it is likely that both functions emerged at about the same time: once humans began using fire for warmth, it would have been a relatively short time before they comprehended the power of fire to drive out both darkness and the fierce creatures (for instance, bears) that came with it.
These distant forebears advanced to the fashioning of portable lighting technology in the form of torches or rudimentary lamps. Torches were probably made by binding together resinous material from trees, while lamps were made either from stones with natural depressions, or from soft rocks—for example, soap-stone or steatite—into which depressions were carved by using harder material. Most of the many hundreds of lamps found by archaeologists at sites in southwestern France are made of either limestone or sandstone. Limestone was a particularly good choice, since it conducts heat poorly; lamps made of sandstone, a good conductor of heat, usually had carved handles to protect the hands of the user.
artificial light in pre-modern times. The history of lighting is generally divided into four periods, each of which overlap, and which together illustrate the slow pace of change in illumination technology. First was the primitive, a period encompassing the torches and lamps of prehistoric human beings—though, in fact, French peasants used the same lighting methods depicted in nearby cave paintings until World War I.
Next came the classical stage, the world of Greece and Rome. Earlier civilizations, such as that of Egypt, belong to the primitive era in lighting—before the relatively widespread adoption of the candle and of vegetable oil as fuel. Third was the medieval stage, which saw the development of metal lamps. Last came the modern or invention stage, which began with the creation of the glass lantern chimney by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in 1490, culminated with Thomas Edison’s (1847-1931) first practical incandescent bulb in 1879, and continues today.
At various times, ancient peoples used the fat of seals, horses, cattle, and fish as fuel for lamps. (Whale oil, by contrast, entered widespread use only during the nineteenth century.) Primitive humans sometimes used entire ani-mals—for example, the storm petrel, a bird heavy in fat—to provide light. Even without such cruel excesses, however, animal fat made for a smoky, dangerous, foul-smelling fire.
The use of vegetable oils, a much more efficient medium for lighting, did not take hold until Greek, and especially, Roman times. Animal oils remained in use, however, among the poor, whose homes often reeked with the odor of castor oil or fish oil. Because virtually all fuels came from edible sources, times of famine usually meant times of darkness as well.
The candle, as well as the use of vegetable oils, dates back to earliest antiquity, but the use of candles only became common among the richest citizens of Rome. Because it used animal fat, the candle was apparently a return to an earlier stage, but its hardened tallow actually represented a much safer, more stable fuel than lamp oil.

Incandescent Light

Lighting technology in the period from about 1500 to the late nineteenth century involved a number of improvements, but in one respect, little had progressed since prehistoric times: people were still burning fuel to provide illumination. This all changed with the invention of the incandescent bulb, which, though it is credited to Edison, was the product of experimentation that took place throughout the nineteenth century. As early as 1802, British scientist Sir Humphry Davy (17781829) showed that electricity running through thin strips of metal could heat them enough to cause them to give off light—that is, electromagnetic radiation.
Edison, in fact, was just one of several inventors in the 1870s attempting to develop a practical incandescent lamp. His innovation lay in his understanding of the parameters necessary for developing such a lamp—in particular, decreasing the electrical resistance in the lamp filament (the part that is heated) so that less energy would be required to light it. On October 19, 1879, using low-resistance filaments of carbon or platinum, combined with a high-resistance carbon filament in a vacuum-sealed glass container, Edison produced the first practical light bulb.
Much has changed in the design of light-bulbs during the decades following Edison’s ingenious invention, of course, but his design provided the foundation. There is just one problem with incandescent light, however—a problem inherent in the definition and derivation of the word incandescent, which comes from a Latin root meaning “to become hot.” The efficiency of a light is determined by the ratio of light, or usable energy, to heat—which, except in the case of a campfire, is typically not a desirable form of energy where lighting is concerned.
Amazingly, only about 10% of the energy output from a typical incandescent light bulb is in the form of visible light; the rest comes through the infrared region of the spectrum, producing heat rather than light that people can use. The visible light tends to be in the red and yellow end ofthe spectrum—closer to infrared— but a blue-tinted bulb helps to absorb some of the red and yellow, providing a color balance. This, however, only further diminishes the total light output, and, hence, in many applications today, fluorescent light takes the place of incandescent light.


A laser is an extremely focused, extremely narrow, and extremely powerful beam of light. Actually, the term laser is an acronym, standing for Light Amplification by Simulated Lmission of Radiation. Simulated emission involves bringing a large number of atoms into what is called an “excited state.” Generally, most atoms are in a ground state, and are less active in their movements, but the energy source that activates a laser brings about population inversion, a reversal of the ratios, such that the majority of atoms within the active medium are in an excited rather than a ground state. To visualize this, picture a popcorn popper, with the excited atoms being the popping kernels, and the ground-state atoms the ones remaining unpopped. As the atoms become excited, and the excited atoms outnumber the ground ones, they start to cause a multiplication of the resident photons. This is simulated emission.
A laser consists of three components: an optical cavity, an energy source, and an active medium. To continue the popcorn analogy, the “popper” itself—the chamber which holds the laser—is the optical cavity, which, in the case of a laser, involves two mirrors facing one another. One of these mirrors fully reflects light, whereas the other is a partly reflecting mirror. The light not reflected by the second mirror escapes as a highly focused beam. As with the popcorn popper, the power source involves electricity, and the active medium is analogous to the oil in a conventional popper.

Types of lasers

There are four types of lasers: solid-state, semiconductor, gas, and dye. Solid-state lasers are generally very large and extremely powerful. Having a crystal or glass housing, they have been implemented in nuclear energy research, and in various areas of industry. Whereas solid-state lasers can be as long as a city block, semiconductor lasers can be smaller than
The beam of a mode locked, frequency doubled Nd YLF laser is reflected off mirrors and through filters at Colorado State University.
The beam of a mode locked, frequency doubled Nd YLF laser is reflected off mirrors and through filters at Colorado State University.
the head of a pin. Semiconductor lasers (involving materials such as arsenic that conduct electricity, but do not do so as efficiently as the metals typically used as conductors) are applied for the intricate work of making compact discs and computer microchips.
Gas lasers contain carbon dioxide or other gases, activated by electricity in much the same way the gas in a neon sign is activated. Among their applications are eye surgery, printing, and scanning. Finally, dye lasers, as their name suggests, use different colored dyes. (Laser light itself, unlike ordinary light, is monochromatic.) Dye lasers can be used for medical research, or for fun—as in the case of laser light shows held at parks in the summertime.

Laser Applications

Laser beams have a number of other useful functions, for instance, the production of compact discs (CDs). Lasers etch information onto a surface, and because of the light beam’s qualities, can record far more information in much less space than the old-fashioned ways of producing phonograph records.


Aperture: An opening.
Diffraction: The bending of waves around obstacles, or the spreading of waves by passing them through an aperture.
Diffusion: A process by which the concentration or density of something is decreased.
Electromagnetic spectrum:
The complete range of electromagnetic waves on a continuous distribution from a very low range of frequencies and energy levels, with a correspondingly long wavelength, to a very high range of frequencies and energy levels, with a correspondingly short wavelength. Included on the electromagnetic spectrum are long-wave and short-wave radio; microwaves; infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light; x rays, and gamma rays.
Electromagnetic wave: A transverse wave with electric and magnetic fields that emanate from it. The directions of these fields are perpendicular to one another, and both are perpendicular to the line of propagation for the wave itself.
Frequency: The number of waves passing through a given point during the interval of one second. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.
Hertz: A unit for measuring frequency, named after nineteenth—century German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz
Incidence: Contact between a ray— for example, a light ray—and a surface. Types of incidence include reflection and refraction.
Medium: A substance through which light travels, such as air, water, or glass.
Because light moves by radiation, it does not require a medium, and, in fact, movement through a medium slows the speed of light somewhat.
Optics: An area of physics that studies the production and propagation of light.
Photoelectric effect: The phenomenon whereby certain metals acquire an electrical potential when exposed to light.
Photon: A particle of electromagnetic radiation—for example, light—carrying a specific amount of energy, measured in electron volts (eV).
Prism: A three-dimensional glass shape used for the diffusion of light rays.
Propagation: The act or state of traveling from one place to another.
Radiation: The transfer of energy by means of electromagnetic waves, which require no physical medium (for example, water or air) for the transfer. Earth receives the Sun’s energy (including its light), via the electromagnetic spectrum, by means of radiation.
Ray: In geometry, a ray is that part of a straight line that extends in one direction only. The term “ray” is used to describe the directed line made by light as it moves through space.
Reflection: A type of incidence whereby a light ray is returned toward its source rather than being absorbed at the interface.
Refraction: The bending of a light ray that occurs when it passes through a dense medium, such as water or glass.
Spectrum: The continuous distribution of properties in an ordered arrangement across an unbroken range. Examples of spectra (the plural of “spectrum”) include the colors of visible light, or the electromagnetic spectrum of which visible light is a part.
Transverse wave: A wave in which the vibration or motion is perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is moving.
Vacuum: An area of space devoid of matter, including air.
Wavelength: The distance between a crest and the adjacent crest, or the trough and an adjacent trough, of a wave. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency.
Lasers used in the production of CD-ROM (Read-Only Memory) disks are able to condense huge amounts of information—a set of encyclopedias or the New York metropolitan phone book—onto a disk one can hold in the palm of one’s hand. Laser etching is also used to create digital videodiscs (DVDs) and holograms.Another way that lasers affect everyday life is in the field of fiber optics, which uses pulses of laser light to send information on glass strands.
Before the advent of fiber-optic communications, telephone calls were relayed on thick bundles of copper wire; with the appearance of this new technology, a glass wire no thicker than a human hair now carries thousands of conversations. Lasers are also used in scanners, such as the price-code checkers at supermarkets and various kinds of tags that prevent thefts of topics from libraries or clothing items from stores. In an industrial setting, heating lasers can drill through solid metal, or in an operating room, lasers can remove gallstones or cataracts. Lasers are also used for guiding missiles, and to help building contractors ensure that walls and floors and ceilings are in proper alignment.

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