1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Diffraction of Light

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DIFFRACTION OF LIGHT.—1. When light proceeding from a small source falls upon an opaque object, a shadow is cast upon a screen situated behind the obstacle, and this shadow is found to be bordered by alternations of brightness and darkness, known as “diffraction bands.” The phenomena thus presented were described by Grimaldi and by Newton. Subsequently T. Young showed that in their formation interference plays an important part, but the complete explanation was reserved for A. J. Fresnel. Later investigations by Fraunhofer, Airy and others have greatly widened the field, and under the head of “diffraction” are now usually treated all the effects dependent upon the limitation of a beam of light, as well as those which arise from irregularities of any kind at surfaces through which it is transmitted, or at which it is reflected.

2. Shadows.—In the infancy of the undulatory theory the objection most frequently urged against it was the difficulty of explaining the very existence of shadows. Thanks to Fresnel and his followers, this department of optics is now precisely the one in which the theory has gained its greatest triumphs. The principle employed in these investigations is due to C. Huygens, and may be thus formulated. If round the origin of waves an ideal closed surface be drawn, the whole action of the waves in the region beyond may be regarded as due to the motion continually propagated across the various elements of this surface. The wave motion due to any element of the surface is called a secondary wave, and in estimating the total effect regard must be paid to the phases as well as the amplitudes of the components. It is usually convenient to choose as the surface of resolution a wave-front, i.e. a surface at which the primary vibrations are in one phase. Any obscurity that may hang over Huygens’s principle is due mainly to the indefiniteness of thought and expression which we must be content to put up with if we wish to avoid pledging ourselves as to the character of the vibrations. In the application to sound, where we know what we are dealing with, the matter is simple enough in principle, although mathematical difficulties would often stand in the way of the calculations we might wish to make. secondary disturbance corresponding to the element dS of the plane may be supposed to be that caused by a force of the above magnitude acting over dS and vanishing elsewhere; and it only remains to examine what the result of such a force would be.

Now it is evident that the force in question, supposed to act upon the positive half only of the medium, produces just double of the effect that would be caused by the same force if the medium were undivided, and on the latter supposition (being also localized at a point) it comes under the head already considered. According to (18), the effect of the force acting at dS parallel to OZ, and of amount equal to

2b2kD dS cos nt,

will be a disturbance


regard being had to (12). This therefore expresses the secondary disturbance at a distance r and in a direction making an angle φ with OZ (the direction of primary vibration) due to the element dS of the wave-front.

The proportionality of the secondary disturbance to sin φ is common to the present law and to that given by Stokes, but here there is no dependence upon the angle θ between the primary and secondary rays. The occurrence of the factor λr−1, and the necessity of supposing the phase of the secondary wave accelerated by a quarter of an undulation, were first established by Archibald Smith, as the result of a comparison between the primary wave, supposed to pass on without resolution, and the integrated effect of all the secondary waves (§ 2). The occurrence of factors such as sin φ, or 1/2(1 + cos θ), in the expression of the secondary wave has no influence upon the result of the integration, the effects of all the elements for which the factors differ appreciably from unity being destroyed by mutual interference.

The choice between various methods of resolution, all mathematically admissible, would be guided by physical considerations respecting the mode of action of obstacles. Thus, to refer again to the acoustical analogue in which plane waves are incident upon a perforated rigid screen, the circumstances of the case are best represented by the first method of resolution, leading to symmetrical secondary waves, in which the normal motion is supposed to be zero over the unperforated parts. Indeed, if the aperture is very small, this method gives the correct result, save as to a constant factor. In like manner our present law (20) would apply to the kind of obstruction that would be caused by an actual physical division of the elastic medium, extending over the whole of the area supposed to be occupied by the intercepting screen, but of course not extending to the parts supposed to be perforated.

On the electromagnetic theory, the problem of diffraction becomes definite when the properties of the obstacle are laid down. The simplest supposition is that the material composing the obstacle is perfectly conducting, i.e. perfectly reflecting. On this basis A. J. W. Sommerfeld (Math. Ann., 1895, 47, p. 317), with great mathematical skill, has solved the problem of the shadow thrown by a semi-infinite plane screen. A simplified exposition has been given by Horace Lamb (Proc. Lond. Math. Soc., 1906, 4, p. 190). It appears that Fresnel’s results, although based on an imperfect theory, require only insignificant corrections. Problems not limited to two dimensions, such for example as the shadow of a circular disk, present great difficulties, and have not hitherto been treated by a rigorous method; but there is no reason to suppose that Fresnel’s results would be departed from materially.



1. Article Introduction.
2. Shadows.
3. Fraunhofer’s Diffraction Phenomena.
4. Theory of Circular Aperture.
5. Resolving Power of Telescopes.
6. Coronas or Glories.
7. Influence of Aberration. Optical Power of Instruments.
8. Diffraction Gratings.
9. Talbot’s Bands.
10. Diffraction when the Source of Light is not seen in Focus.
11. Dynamical Theory of Diffraction.