What a beautiful sunset! You probably know that sunlight travels in waves through space from the sun to Earth. But do you know what light really is? Is it just energy, or is it something else? In this article you’ll find out that light may be more than it seems.
Electromagnetic radiation, commonly called light, is the transfer of energy by waves called electromagnetic waves. These waves consist of vibrating electric and magnetic fields. Where does electromagnetic energy come from? It is released when electrons return to lower energy levels in atoms. Electromagnetic radiation behaves like continuous waves of energy most of the time. Sometimes, however, electromagnetic radiation seems to behave like discrete, or separate, particles rather than waves. So does electromagnetic radiation consist of waves or particles?
This question about the nature of electromagnetic radiation was debated by scientists for more than two centuries, starting in the 1600s. Some scientists argued that electromagnetic radiation consists of particles that shoot around like tiny bullets. Other scientists argued that electromagnetic radiation consists of waves, like sound waves or water waves. Until the early 1900s, most scientists thought that electromagnetic radiation is either one or the other and that scientists on the other side of the argument were simply wrong.
Q: Do you think electromagnetic radiation is a wave or a particle?
A: Here’s a hint: it may not be a question of either-or. Keep reading to learn more.
A New Theory
In 1905, the physicist Albert Einstein developed a new theory about electromagnetic radiation. The theory is often called the wave-particle theory. It explains how electromagnetic radiation can behave as both a wave and a particle. Einstein argued that when an electron returns to a lower energy level and gives off electromagnetic energy, the energy is released as a discrete “packet” of energy. We now call such a packet of energy a photon. According to Einstein, a photon resembles a particle but moves like a wave. You can see this in the Figure below. The theory posits that waves of photons traveling through space or matter make up electromagnetic radiation.
Energy of a Photon
A photon isn’t a fixed amount of energy. Instead, the amount of energy in a photon depends on the frequency of the electromagnetic wave. The frequency of a wave is the number of waves that pass a fixed point in a given amount of time, such as the number of waves per second. In waves with higher frequencies, photons have more energy.
Evidence for the Wave-Particle Theory
After Einstein proposed his theory, evidence was discovered to support it. For example, scientists shone laser light through two slits in a barrier made of a material that blocked light. You can see the setup of this type of experiment in the Figure below. Using a special camera that was very sensitive to light, they took photos of the light that passed through the slits. The photos revealed tiny pinpoints of light passing through the double slits. This seemed to show that light consists of particles. However, if the camera was exposed to the light for a long time, the pinpoints accumulated in bands that resembled interfering waves. Therefore, the experiment showed that light seems to consist of particles that act like waves.
Use the PLIX Interactive below to observe how light particles behave like waves as they diffract through a single slit and create patterns due to their interference:
- Electromagnetic radiation behaves like waves of energy most of the time, but sometimes it behaves like particles. From the 1600s until the early 1900s, most scientists thought that electromagnetic radiation consists either of particles or of waves but not both.
- In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the wave-particle theory of electromagnetic radiation. This theory states that electromagnetic energy is released in discrete packets of energy—now called photons—that act like waves.
- After Einstein presented his theory, scientists found evidence to support it. For example, double-slit experiments showed that light consists of tiny particles that create patterns of interference just as waves do.
- Why did scientists debate the nature of electromagnetic radiation for more than 200 years?
- State Einstein’s wave-particle theory of electromagnetic radiation.
- What is a photon?
- After Einstein proposed his wave-particle theory, how did double-slit experiments provide evidence to support the theory?
Study Guide: Wave Optics Study Guide
Videos: De Broglie Wavelength and Wave Particle Duality - Overview
Real World Application:
PLIX: Play, Learn, Interact, eXplore: Photoelectric Effect, Single Slit Diffraction