1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Diffraction of Light/5

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5. Resolving Power of Telescopes.—The efficiency of a telescope is of course intimately connected with the size of the disk by which it represents a mathematical point. In estimating theoretically the resolving power on a double star we have to consider the illumination of the field due to the superposition of the two independent images. If the angular interval between the components of a double star were equal to twice that expressed in equation (15) above, the central disks of the diffraction patterns would be just in contact. Under these conditions there is no doubt that the star would appear to be fairly resolved, since the brightness of its external ring system is too small to produce any material confusion, unless indeed the components are of very unequal magnitude. The diminution of the star disks with increasing aperture was observed by Sir William Herschel, and in 1823 Fraunhofer formulated the law of inverse proportionality. In investigations extending over a long series of years, the advantage of a large aperture in separating the components of close double stars was fully examined by W. R. Dawes.

The resolving power of telescopes was investigated also by J. B. L. Foucault, who employed a scale of equal bright and dark alternate parts; it was found to be proportional to the aperture and independent of the focal length. In telescopes of the best construction and of moderate aperture the performance is not sensibly prejudiced by outstanding aberration, and the limit imposed by the finiteness of the waves of light is practically reached. M. E. Verdet has compared Foucault’s results with theory, and has drawn the conclusion that the radius of the visible part of the image of a luminous point was equal to half the radius of the first dark ring.

The application, unaccountably long delayed, of this principle to the microscope by H. L. F. Helmholtz in 1871 is the foundation of the important doctrine of the microscopic limit. It is true that in 1823 Fraunhofer, inspired by his observations upon gratings, had very nearly hit the mark.[1] And a little before Helmholtz, E. Abbe published a somewhat more complete investigation, also founded upon the phenomena presented by gratings. But although the argument from gratings is instructive and convenient in some respects, its use has tended to obscure the essential unity of the principle of the limit of resolution whether applied to telescopes or microscopes.

Fig. 4.

In fig. 4, AB represents the axis of an optical instrument (telescope or microscope), A being a point of the object and B a point of the image. By the operation of the object-glass LL′ all the rays issuing from A arrive in the same phase at B. Thus if A be self-luminous, the illumination is a maximum at B, where all the secondary waves agree in phase. B is in fact the centre of the diffraction disk which constitutes the image of A. At neighbouring points the illumination is less, in consequence of the discrepancies of phase which there enter. In like manner if we take a neighbouring point P, also self-luminous, in the plane of the object, the waves which issue from it will arrive at B with phases no longer absolutely concordant, and the discrepancy of phase will increase as the interval AP increases. When the interval is very small the discrepancy, though mathematically existent, produces no practical effect; and the illumination at B due to P is as important as that due to A, the intensities of the two luminous sources being supposed equal. Under these conditions it is clear that A and P are not separated in the image. The question is to what amount must the distance AP be increased in order that the difference of situation may make itself felt in the image. This is necessarily a question of degree; but it does not require detailed calculations in order to show that the discrepancy first becomes conspicuous when the phases corresponding to the various secondary waves which travel from P to B range over a complete period. The illumination at B due to P then becomes comparatively small, indeed for some forms of aperture evanescent. The extreme discrepancy is that between the waves which travel through the outermost parts of the object-glass at L and L′; so that if we adopt the above standard of resolution, the question is where must P be situated in order that the relative retardation of the rays PL and PL’ may on their arrival at B amount to a wave-length (λ). In virtue of the general law that the reduced optical path is stationary in value, this retardation may be calculated without allowance for the different paths pursued on the farther side of L, L′, so that the value is simply PL − PL′. Now since AP is very small, AL′ − PL′ = AP sin α, where α is the angular semi-aperture L′AB. In like manner PL − AL has the same value, so that

PL − PL′=2AP sin α.

According to the standard adopted, the condition of resolution is therefore that AP, or ε, should exceed 1/2λ/sin α. If ε be less than this, the images overlap too much; while if ε greatly exceed the above value the images become unnecessarily separated.

In the above argument the whole space between the object and the lens is supposed to be occupied by matter of one refractive index, and λ represents the wave-length in this medium of the kind of light employed. If the restriction as to uniformity be violated, what we have ultimately to deal with is the wave-length in the medium immediately surrounding the object.

Calling the refractive index μ, we have as the critical value of ε,

ε=1/2λ0 /μ sin α. (1),

λ0 being the wave-length in vacuo. The denominator μ sin α is the quantity well known (after Abbe) as the “numerical aperture.”

The extreme value possible for α is a right angle, so that for the microscopic limit we have

ε=1/2λ0 (2).

The limit can be depressed only by a diminution in λ0, such as photography makes possible, or by an increase in μ, the refractive index of the medium in which the object is situated.

The statement of the law of resolving power has been made in a form appropriate to the microscope, but it admits also of immediate application to the telescope. If 2R be the diameter of the object-glass and D the distance of the object, the angle subtended by AP is ε/D, and the angular resolving power is given by

λ/2D sin α=λ/2R (3).

This method of derivation (substantially due to Helmholtz) makes it obvious that there is no essential difference of principle between the two cases, although the results are conveniently stated in different forms. In the case of the telescope we have to deal with a linear measure of aperture and an angular limit of resolution, whereas in the case of the microscope the limit of resolution is linear, and it is expressed in terms of angular aperture.

It must be understood that the above argument distinctly assumes that the different parts of the object are self-luminous, or at least that the light proceeding from the various points is without phase relations. As has been emphasized by G. J. Stoney, the restriction is often, perhaps usually, violated in the microscope. A different treatment is then necessary, and for some of the problems which arise under this head the method of Abbe is convenient.

The importance of the general conclusions above formulated, as imposing a limit upon our powers of direct observation, can hardly be overestimated; but there has been in some quarters a tendency to ascribe to it a more precise character than it can bear, or even to mistake its meaning altogether. A few words of further explanation may therefore be desirable. The first point to be emphasized is that nothing whatever is said as to the smallness of a single object that may be made visible. The eye, unaided or armed with a telescope, is able to see, as points of light, stars subtending no sensible angle. The visibility of a star is a question of brightness simply, and has nothing to do with resolving power. The latter element enters only when it is a question of recognizing the duplicity of a double star, or of distinguishing detail upon the surface of a planet. So in the microscope there is nothing except lack of light to hinder the visibility of an object however small. But if its dimensions be much less than the half wave-length, it can only be seen as a whole, and its parts cannot be distinctly separated, although in cases near the border line some inference may be possible, founded upon experience of what appearances are presented in various cases. Interesting observations upon particles, ultra-microscopic in the above sense, have been recorded by H. F. W. Siedentopf and R. A. Zsigmondy (Drude’s Ann., 1903, 10, p. 1).

In a somewhat similar way a dark linear interruption in a bright ground may be visible, although its actual width is much inferior to the half wave-length. In illustration of this fact a simple experiment may be mentioned. In front of the naked eye was held a piece of copper foil perforated by a fine needle hole. Observed through this the structure of some wire gauze just disappeared at a distance from the eye equal to 17 in., the gauze containing 46 meshes to the inch. On the other hand, a single wire 0·034 in. in diameter remained fairly visible up to a distance of 20 ft. The ratio between the limiting angles subtended by the periodic structure of the gauze and the diameter of the wire was (·022/·034) × (240/17) = 9·1. For further information upon this subject reference may be made to Phil. Mag., 1896, 42, p. 167; Journ. R. Micr. Soc., 1903, p. 447.

  1. “Man kann daraus schliessen, was moglicher Weise durch Mikroskope noch zu sehen ist. Ein mikroskopischer Gegenstand z. B, dessen Durchmesser = (λ) ist, und der aus zwei Theilen besteht, kann nicht mehr als aus zwei Theilen bestehend erkannt werden. Dieses zeigt uns eine Grenze des Sehvermögens durch Mikroskope” (Gilbert’s Ann. 74, 337). Lord Rayleigh has recorded that he was himself convinced by Fraunhofer’s reasoning at a date antecedent to the writings of Helmholtz and Abbe.