What is Light?

Why is it that a beam of light radiates outward, as Young proved? What is really going on? To understand light waves, it helps to start by discussing a more familiar kind of wave -- the one we see in the water. One key point to keep in mind about the water wave is that it is not made up of water: The wave is made up of energy traveling through the water. If a wave moves across a pool from left to right, this does not mean that the water on the left side of the pool is moving to the right side of the pool. The water has actually stayed about where it was. It is the wave that has moved. When you move your hand through a filled bathtub, you make a wave, because you are putting your energy into the water. The energy travels through the water in the form of the wave.

All waves are traveling energy, and they are usually moving through some medium, such as water. You can see a diagram of a water wave in Figure 1. A water wave consists of water molecules that vibrate up and down at right angles to the direction of motion of the wave. This type of wave is called a transverse wave.

Light waves are a little more complicated, and they do not need a medium to travel through. They can travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields. The fields vibrate at right angles to the direction of movement of the wave, and at right angles to each other. Because light has both electric and magnetic fields, it is also referred to as electromagnetic radiation.


Figure 1

Light waves come in many sizes. The size of a wave is measured as its wavelength, which is the distance between any two corresponding points on successive waves, usually peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough (Figure 1). The wavelengths of the light we can see range from 400 to 700 billionths of a meter. But the full range of wavelengths included in the definition of electromagnetic radiation extends from one billionth of a meter, as in gamma rays, to centimeters and meters, as in radio waves. Light is one small part of the spectrum.