Through A Prism Brightly

Familiar footsteps outside my office. “C’mon in, Vinnie, the door’s open.”

“Hi, Sy, gotta minute?”

“Sure, Vinnie, business is slow. What’s up?”

“Business is slow for me, too. I was looking over some of your old posts—”

“That slow, eh?”

“You know it. Anyway, I’m hung up on that video where light’s got two different speeds.”

“Three, really.”

“That’s even worse. What’s the story?”

“Well, first thing, it depends on where the light is. If you’re out in the vacuum, far away from atoms, they’re all the same, c. Simple.”

“Matter messes things up, then.”

“Of course. Our familiar kind of matter, anyway, made of charges like quarks and electrons. Light’s whole job is to interact with charges. When it does, things happen.”

“Sure — photon bangs into a rock, it stops.”

“It’s not that simple. Remember the wave-particle craziness? Light’s a particle at either end of its trip but in between it’s a wave. The wave could reflect off the rock or diffract around it. Interstellar infra-red astronomy depends upon IR scooting around dust particles so we can see the stars behind the dust clouds. What gets interesting is when the light encounters a mostly transparent medium.”

“I get suspicious when you emphasize ‘mostly.’ Mostly how?”

“Transparent means no absorption. The only thing that’s completely transparent is empty space. Anything made of normal matter can’t be completely transparent, because every kind of atom absorbs certain frequencies.”

“Glass is transparent.”

“To visible light, but even that depends on the glass. Ever notice how cheap drinking glasses have a greenish tint when you look down at the rim? Some light absorption, just not very much. Even pure silica glass is opaque beyond the near ultraviolet. … Okay, bear with me on this. Why do you suppose Newton made such a fuss about prisms?”

“Because he saw it made a rainbow in sunlight and thought that was pretty?”

“Nothing so mild. We’re talking Newton here. No, it had to do with one of his famous ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong‘ battles. Aristotle said that sunlight is pure white‑color, and that objects emit various kinds of darkness to overcome the white and produce colors for us. That was academic gospel for 2000 years until Newton decided it was wrong. He went to war with Aristotle using prisms as his primary weapons.”

“So that’s why he invented them?”

“No, no, they’d been around for millennia, ever since humans discovered that prismatic quartz crystals in a beam of sunlight throw rainbows. Newton’s innovation was to use multiple prisms arrayed with lenses and mirrors. His most direct attack on Aristotle used two prisms. He aimed the beam coming out of the first prism onto a reversed second prism. Except for some red and violet fringes at the edges, the light coming out of the second prism matched the original sunlight beam. That proved colors are in the light, not in Aristotle’s darknesses.”

“Newton won. End of story.”

“Not by a long shot. Aristotle had the strength of tradition behind him. A lot of Continental academics and churchmen had built their careers around his works. Newton’s earlier battles had won him many enemies and some grudging respect but few effective allies. Worse, Newton published his experiments and observations in a treatise which he wrote in English instead of the conventional scholarly Latin. Typical Newtonian belligerence, probably. The French academicians reacted by simply rejecting his claims out of hand. It took a generational turnover before his thinking was widely accepted.”

“Where do speeds come into this?”

“Through another experiment in Newton’s Optics treatise. If he used a card with a hole in it to isolate, say, green light in the space between the two prisms, the light beam coming from the second prism was the matching green. No evidence of any other colors. That was an important observation on its own, but Newton’s real genius move was to measure the diffraction angles. Every color had its own angle. No matter the conditions, any particular light color was always bent by the same number of degrees. Newton had put numbers to colors. That laid the groundwork for all of spectroscopic science.”

“And that ties to speed how?”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Speeds of Light

“I don’t give up easy, Sy.”

“I know that, Vinnie.  Still musing about lightwaves and how they’re all an electron’s fault?”

“Yeah.  Hey, can your OVR app on Old Reliable grab a shot from this movie running on my smartphone?”

“We can try … got it.  Now what?”

“I wanna try mixing that with your magnetic field picture.”

“I’ll bring that up … Here, have at it.”

“Umm … Nice app, works very intuitive-like …  OK, see this?”Electrons and lightwave

“Ah.  It’s a bit busy, walk me through what’s in there.”

“OK. First we got the movie’s lightwave.  The ray’s running along that black arrow, see?  Some electron back behind the picture is going up and down to energize the ray and that makes the electric field that’s in red that makes other electrons go up and down, right?”

“That’s the red arrow, hmm?”

“Yeah, that electron got goosed ’cause it was standing in the way.  It follows the electric field’s direction.  Now help me out with the magnetic stuff.”

“Alright.  The blue lines represent the lightwave’s magnetic component.  A lightwave’s magnetic field lines are always perpendicular to its electric field.  Magnetism has no effect on uncharged particles or motionless charged particles.  If you’re a moving charged particle, say an electron, then the field deflects your trajectory.”

“This is what I’m still trying to wrap my head around.  You say that the field’s gonna push the particle perpendicular to the field and to the particle’s own vector.”

“That’s exactly what happens.  The green line, for instance, could represent an electron that crossed the magnetic field.  The field deflected the electron’s path upwards, crossways to the field and the electron’s path.  Then I suppose the electron encountered the reversed field from the lightwave’s following cycle and corrected course again.”

“And the grey line?”

“That’d be an electron crossing more-or-less along the field.  According to the Right Hand Rule it was deflected downward.”

“Wait.  We’ve got two electrons on the same side of the field and they’re deflected in opposite directions then correct back.  Doesn’t that average out to no change?”

“Not quite.  The key word is mostly.  Like gravity fields, electromagnetic fields get weaker with distance.  Each up or down deflection to an electron on an outbound path will be smaller than the previous one so the ‘course corrections’ get less correct.  Inbound electrons get deflected ever more strongly on the way in, of course, but eventually they become outbound electrons and get messed up even more.  All those deflections produce an expanding cone of disturbed electrons along the path of the ray.”

“Hey, but when any electron moves that changes the fields, right?  Wouldn’t there be a cone of disturbed field, too?”

“Absolutely.  The whole process leads to several kinds of dispersion.”

“Like what?”

“The obvious one is simple geometry.  What had been a simple straight-line ray is now an expanding cone of secondary emission.  Suppose you’re an astronomer looking at a planet that’s along that ray, for instance.  Light’s getting to you from throughout the cone, not just from the straight line.  You’re going to get a blurred picture.”

“What’s another kind?”

“Moving those electrons around extracts energy from the wave.  Some fraction of the ray’s original photons get converted to lower-energy ones with lower frequencies.  The net result is that the ray’s spectrum is spread and dispersed towards the red.”

“You said several kinds.”

“The last one’s a doozy — it affects the speeds of light.”

“‘Speeds,’ plural?”ripples in a wave

“There’s the speed of field’s ripples, and there’s the speed of the whole signal, say when a star goes nova.  Here’s a picture I built on Old Reliable.  The gold line is the electric field — see how the ripples make the red electron wobble?  The green dots on the axis give you comparison points that don’t move.  Watch how the ripples move left to right just like the signal does, but at their own speed.”

“Which one’s Einstein’s?”

“The signal.  Its speed is called the group velocity and in space always runs 186,000 mph.  The ripple speed, technically it’s the phase velocity, is slower because of that extracted-and-redistributed-energy process.  Different frequencies get different slowdowns, which gives astronomers clues about the interstellar medium.”

“Clues are good.”

~~ Rich Olcott