Interference as a Scientific Tool

The experiments of Thomas Young first illustrated interference and definitely pointed the way to a wave theory of light. A. J. Fresnel's experiments clearly demonstrated that the interference phenomena could be explained adequately only upon the basis of a wave theory. The thickness of a very thin film such as the soap-bubble wall can be measured by an instrument called the interferometer. When the wavelength of the light is known, the interferometer indicates the thickness of the film by the interference patterns it forms. The reverse process, i.e., the measurement of the length of an unknown light wave, can also be carried out by the interferometer.

The Michelson interferometer used in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 to determine the velocity of light had a half-silvered mirror to split an incident beam of light into two parts at right angles to one another. The two halves of the beam were then reflected off mirrors and rejoined. Any difference in the speed of light along the paths could be detected by the interference pattern. The failure of the experiment to detect any such difference threw doubt on the existence of the ether and thus paved the way for the special theory of relativity.

Another type of interferometer devised by Michelson has been applied in measuring the diameters of certain stars. The radio interferometer consists of two or more radio telescopes separated by fairly large distances (necessary because radio waves are much longer than light waves) and is used to pinpoint and study various celestial sources of radiation in the radio range. Astronomical interferometers consisting of two or more optical telescopes are used to enhance visible images of distant celestial objects. See radio astronomy; virtual telescope.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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