Light waves reinforce or neutralize each other in very much the same way as sound waves. If, for example, two light waves each of one color (monochromatic waves), of the same amplitude, and of the same frequency are combined, the interference they exhibit is characterized by so-called fringes—a series of light bands (resulting from reinforcement) alternating with dark bands (caused by neutralization). Such a pattern is formed either by light passing through two narrow slits and being diffracted (see diffraction), or by light passing through a single slit. In the case of two slits, each slit acts as a light source, producing two sets of waves that may combine or cancel depending upon their phase relationship. In the case of a single slit, each point within the slit acts as a light source. In all cases, for light waves to demonstrate such behavior, they must emanate from the same source; light from distinct sources has too many random differences to permit interference patterns.
The relative positions of light and dark lines depend upon the wavelength of the light, among other factors. Thus, if white light, which is made up of all colors, is used instead of monochromatic light, bands of color are formed because each color, or wavelength, is reinforced at a different position. This fact is utilized in the diffraction grating, which forms a spectrum by diffraction and interference of a beam of light incident on it. Newton's rings also are the result of the interference of light. They are formed concentrically around the point of contact between a glass plate and a slightly convex lens set upon it or between two lenses pressed together; they consist of bright rings separated by dark ones when monochromatic light is used, or of alternate spectrum-colored and black rings when white light is used. Various natural phenomena are the result of interference, e.g., the colors appearing in soap bubbles and the iridescence of mother-of-pearl and other substances.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.