light: Modern Theory of the Nature of Light

Modern Theory of the Nature of Light

With the acceptance of the electromagnetic theory of light, only two general problems remained. One of these was that of the luminiferous ether, a hypothetical medium suggested as the carrier of light waves, just as air or water carries sound waves. The ether was assumed to have some very unusual properties, e.g., being massless but having high elasticity. A number of experiments performed to give evidence of the ether, most notably by A. A. Michelson in 1881 and by Michelson and E. W. Morley in 1887, failed to support the ether hypothesis. With the publication of the special theory of relativity in 1905 by Albert Einstein, the ether was shown to be unnecessary to the electromagnetic theory.

The second main problem, and the more serious of the two, was the explanation of various phenomena, such as the photoelectric effect, that involved the interaction of light with matter. Again the solution to the problem was proposed by Einstein, also in 1905. Einstein extended the quantum theory of thermal radiation proposed by Max Planck in 1900 to cover not only vibrations of the source of radiation but also vibrations of the radiation itself. He thus suggested that light, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation as well, travel as tiny bundles of energy called light quanta, or photons. The energy of each photon is directly proportional to its frequency.

With the development of the quantum theory of atomic and molecular structure by Niels Bohr and others, it became apparent that light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation are emitted and absorbed in connection with energy transitions of the particles of the substance radiating or absorbing the light. In these processes, the quantum, or particle, nature of light is more important than its wave nature. When the transmission of light is under consideration, however, the wave nature dominates over the particle nature. In 1924, Louis de Broglie showed that an analogous picture holds for particle behavior, with moving particles having certain wavelike properties that govern their motion, so that there exists a complementarity between particles and waves known as particle-wave duality (see also complementarity principle). The quantum theory of light has successfully explained all aspects of the behavior of light.

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