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Chapter: 12th Physics : UNIT 7 : Wave Optics

Theories on Light

1. Corpuscular theory, 2. Wave theory, 3. Electromagnetic wave theory, 4. Quantum theory


Light is a form of energy that is transferred from one place to another. A glance at the evolution of various theories of light put forward by scientists will give not only an over view of the nature of light but also its propagation and some phenomenon demonstrated by it.


Corpuscular theory

Sir Isaac Newton (1672) gave the corpuscular theory of light which was also suggested earlier by Descartes (1637) to explain the laws of reflection and refraction. According this theory, light is emitted as tiny, massless (negligibly small mass) and perfectly elastic particles called corpuscles. As the corpuscles are very small, the source of light does not suffer appreciable loss of mass even if it emits light for a long time. On account of high speed, they are unaffected by the force of gravity and their path is a straight line in a medium of uniform refractive index. The energy of light is the kinetic energy of these corpuscles. When these corpuscles impinge on the retina of the eye, the vision is produced. The different size of the corpuscles is the reason for different colours of light. When the corpuscles approach a surface between two media, they are either attracted or repelled. The reflection of light is due to the repulsion of the corpuscles by the medium and refraction of light is due to the attraction of the corpuscles by the medium.

This theory could not explain the reason why the speed of light is lesser in denser medium than in rarer medium and also the phenomena like interference, diffraction and polarisation.


Wave theory

Christian Huygens (1678) proposed the wave theory to explain the propagation of light through a medium. According to him, light is a disturbance from a source that travels as longitudinal mechanical waves through the ether medium that was presumed to pervade all space as mechanical wave requires medium for its propagation. The wave theory could successfully explain phenomena of reflection, refraction, interference and diffraction of light.

Later, the existence of ether in all space was proved to be wrong. Hence, this theory could not explain the propagation of light through vacuum. The phenomenon of polarisation could not be explained by this theory as it is the property of only transverse waves.


Electromagnetic wave theory

Maxwell (1864) proved that light is an electromagnetic wave which is transverse in nature carrying electromagnetic energy. He could also show that no medium is necessary for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. All the phenomenon of light could be successfully explained by this theory.

Nevertheless, the interaction phenomenon of light with matter like photoelectric effect, Compton effect could not be explained by this theory.


Quantum theory

Albert Einstein (1905), endorsing the views of Max Plank (1900), was able to explain photoelectric effect (discussed in Unit 7) in which light interacts with matter as photons to eject the electrons. A photon is a discrete packet of energy. Each photon has energy E of,

Where, h is Plank’s constant (h = 6.625 × 10–34 J s) and υ is frequency of electromagnetic wave.

As light has both wave as well as particle nature it is said to have dual nature. Thus, it is concluded that light propagates as a wave and interacts with matter as a particle.

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12th Physics : UNIT 7 : Wave Optics

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