Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.

Behavior of Light

A. Interaction with Material

When light strikes a material, it interacts with the atoms in the material, and the corresponding effects depend on the frequency of the light and the atomic structure of the material. In transparent materials, the electrons in the material oscillate, or vibrate, while the light is present. This oscillation momentarily takes energy away from the light and then puts it back again. The result is to slow down the light wave without leaving energy behind. Denser materials generally slow the light more than less dense materials, but the effect also depends on the frequency or wavelength of the light. Under certain laboratory conditions, scientists can slow light down. In 2001 scientists brought a beam of light to a halt by temporarily trapping it within an extremely cold cloud of sodium atoms.

Materials that are not completely transparent either absorb light or reflect it. In absorbing materials, such as dark colored cloth, the energy of the oscillating electrons does not go back to the light. The energy instead goes toward increasing the motion of the atoms, which causes the material to heat up. The atoms in reflective materials, such as metals, re-radiate light that cancels out the original wave. Only the light re-radiated back out of the material is observed. All materials exhibit some degree of absorption, refraction, and reflection of light. The study of the behavior of light in materials and how to use this behavior to control light is called optics.

B. Refraction

Refraction is the bending of light when it passes from one kind of material into another. Because light travels at a different speed in different materials, it must change speeds at the boundary between two materials. If a beam of light hits this boundary at an angle, then light on the side of the beam that hits first will be forced to slow down or speed up before light on the other side hits the new material. This makes the beam bend, or refract, at the boundary. Light bouncing off an object underwater, for instance, travels first through the water and then through the air to reach an observer’s eye. From certain angles an object that is partially submerged appears bent where it enters the water because light from the part underwater is being refracted.

The refractive index of a material is the ratio of the speed of light in a vacuum to the speed of light inside the material. Because light of different frequencies travels at different speeds in a material, the refractive index is different for different frequencies. This means that light of different colors is bent by different angles as it passes from one material into another. This effect produces the familiar colorful spectrum seen when sunlight passes through a glass prism. The angle of bending at a boundary between two transparent materials is related to the refractive indexes of the materials through Snell’s Law, a mathematical formula that is used to design lenses and other optical devices to control light.

C. Reflection

Reflection also occurs when light hits the boundary between two materials. Some of the light hitting the boundary will be reflected into the first material. If light strikes the boundary at an angle, the light is reflected at the same angle, similar to the way balls bounce when they hit the floor. Light that is reflected from a flat boundary, such as the boundary between air and a smooth lake, will form a mirror image. Light reflected from a curved surface may be focused into a point, a line, or onto an area, depending on the curvature of the surface.

D. Scattering

Scattering occurs when the atoms of a transparent material are not smoothly distributed over distances greater than the length of a light wave, but are bunched up into lumps of molecules or particles. The sky is bright because molecules and particles in the air scatter sunlight. Light with higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths is scattered more than light with lower frequencies and longer wavelengths. The atmosphere scatters violet light the most, but human eyes do not see this color, or frequency, well. The eye responds well to blue, though, which is the next most scattered color. Sunsets look red because when the Sun is at the horizon, sunlight has to travel through a longer distance of atmosphere to reach the eye. The thick layer of air, dust and haze scatters away much of the blue. The spectrum of light scattered from small impurities within materials carries important information about the impurities. Scientists measure light scattered by the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system to learn about the chemical composition of the atmospheres.