Sound is propagated in the form of waves. Sound produced in an adjoining room reaches us after bending round the edges of the walls. Similarly, waves on the surface of water also bend round the edges of an obstacle and spread into the region behind it. This bending of waves around the edges of an obstacle is called diffraction. Diffraction is a characteristic property of waves. The waves are diffracted, only when the size of the obstacle is comparable to the wavelength of the wave.
Fresnel showed that the amount of bending produced at an obstacle depends upon the wavelength of the incident wave. Since the sound waves have a greater wavelength, the diffraction effects are pronounced. As the wavelength of light is very small, compared to that of sound wave and even tiny obstacles have large size, compared to the wavelength of light waves, diffraction effects of light are very small.
In practice, diffraction of light can be observed by looking at a source of white light through a fine piece of cloth. A series of coloured images are observed.
Fresnel and Fraunhofer diffraction
Diffraction phenomenon can be classified under two groups
(i) Fresnel diffraction and (ii) Fraunhofer diffraction. In the Fresnel diffraction, the source and the screen are at finite distances from the obstacle producing diffraction. In such a case the wave front undergoing diffraction is either spherical or cylindrical. In the Fraunhofer diffraction, the source and the screen are at infinite distances from the obstacle producing diffraction. Hence in this case the wavefront undergoing diffraction is plane. The diffracted rays which are parallel to one another are brought to focus with the help of a convex lens. Fraunhofer pattern is easier to observe practically by a spectrometer.