light: The Wave, Particle, and Electromagnetic Theories of Light

The Wave, Particle, and Electromagnetic Theories of Light

The earliest scientific theories of the nature of light were proposed around the end of the 17th cent. In 1690, Christian Huygens proposed a theory that explained light as a wave phenomenon. However, a rival theory was offered by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704. Newton, who had discovered the visible spectrum in 1666, held that light is composed of tiny particles, or corpuscles, emitted by luminous bodies. By combining this corpuscular theory with his laws of mechanics, he was able to explain many optical phenomena.

For more than 100 years, Newton's corpuscular theory of light was favored over the wave theory, partly because of Newton's great prestige and partly because not enough experimental evidence existed to provide an adequate basis of comparison between the two theories. Finally, important experiments were done on the diffraction and interference of light by Thomas Young (1801) and A. J. Fresnel (1814–15) that could only be interpreted in terms of the wave theory. The polarization of light was still another phenomenon that could only be explained by the wave theory. Thus, in the 19th cent. the wave theory became the dominant theory of the nature of light.

The wave theory received additional support from the electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell (1864), who showed that electric and magnetic fields were propagated together and that their speed was identical with the speed of light. It thus became clear that visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, constituting only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Maxwell's theory was confirmed experimentally with the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz in 1886.

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