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Chapter 17: Light

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12

License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The Big Idea

Light is a wave of changing electric and magnetic fields. Light waves are caused by disturbances in an electromagnetic field, like the acceleration of charged particles (such as electrons). Light has a dual nature; at times, it acts like waves, while at other times it acts like particles, called photons. Light travels through space at the maximum speed allowed by the laws of physics, called the speed of light. Light has no mass, but it carries energy and momentum. Fermat's principle states that light will always take the path that takes the least amount of time (not distance).

Fermat’s Principle governs the paths light will take and explains the familiar phenomena of reflection, refraction, diffraction, scattering and color absorption and dispersion. Light rarely travels in a straight line path. When photons interact with electrons in matter, the time it takes for this interaction determines the path. For example, higher frequency blue light is refracted more than red because blue interacts more frequently with electrons. Also, the path of least time is achieved when blue light bends more than red light so that it gets out of the 'slow' region faster. Fermat’s Principle explains the many fascinating phenomena of light from rainbows to sunsets to the halos around the moon.

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