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Wave Optics I

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Wave Optics
We saw in the last lecture that the phenomena of reflection and
refraction could be explained by treating light as a ray obeying the
laws of reflection and refraction at interfaces. This treatment is
referred to as geometrical optics.

However people discovered phenomena which could not be

explained by geometric optics such as interference of light,
diffraction patterns and so on which required the treatment of light
as a wave.

This lecture will provide a brief overview of wave mechanics and

the wave treatment of light

Keywords: Wave optics, superposition of waves, interference

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In this lecture you will learn,
The wave description of light
Meaning of quantities such as wavelength, wavenumber,
frequency, phase, wavefront etc.
Superposition of waves
Beam solutions of wave equation

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Wave Equation and Wave Solutions
A wave is an oscillatory disturbance propagating
through a medium. The simplest case is when a wave
propagates through a homogenous and isotropic
medium where the wave equation in one dimension can
be written as,
2u 1 2u
= 2 2
x 2
c t

The simplest solution of the wave equation can be

written as, u(x,t) = Asin(kx t + ),

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Wave Solutions
Note that the solution is a function of space and time.
Oscillations in space and time means there are two kinds
of frequencies, spatial frequency, which is related to the
wavelength, and the temporal frequency which is related
to the period of the oscillations

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Wave Solution
The simple wave solution u(x,t) = Asin(kx t + ), has
the following attributes

The function u(x,t) describes the amplitude of the wave

at all points in space and time.

The quantity A represents the maximum amplitude


The quantity, k is referred to as the spatial frequency and

it is related to the wavelength , as k = 2/

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Wave Solutions
The quantity, w is referred to as the angular frequency
and it is related to the (temporal frequency) , as = 2

The spatial and angular frequencies are themselves

related to each other through the sped of the wave as, c =

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Wave Solution

The quantity , is called the phase of the wave. More

importantly when one considers two waves u1 and u2,
the phase difference 1 2, determines the alignment of
the peaks and troughs of the two waves. If they are
aligned the amplitudes add up, if they are completely
misaligned the amplitudes cancel each other.

The intensity, which is defined as power per unit area is

related to the square of the amplitude of wave function,
i.e. I(x,t) ~ A2

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Wave-fronts and Propagation

Wavefronts are surfaces of constant phase in a wave. Point

light sources produce an isotropic radiation pattern which can
be characterized by spherical wavefronts. This means that
along the surface of the sphere the phase remains constant.
However, as we see from the diagram, sufficiently far away
from the light source, the wave can be assumed to be a plane
wave, i.e. all points in a plane normal to the direction of
propagation (indicated by the blue arrows) have the same
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Propagation in a Medium Other than Air
The speed of light in vacuum is denoted by c. The
wavevector and the frequency are related by the speed of
light as c = /k. We know that when light propagates
through a medium with refractive index n, the speed of
light becomes v = c/n. Later on we will see that the
frequency of the light does not change when it changes
the medium of propagation. This means that the
wavevector and hence the wavelength should change. In
a medium of refractive index n, the wavevector is k =
nk0, where k0 is the wavevector in vacuum. Alternately,
one can say that the wavelength is = 0/n in a medium
of refractive index n. Here 0 is the wavelength in

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Superposition of Waves
The wave equation written down in the previous slide is
a linear equation, which means that is u1 and u2 are
solutions, then u1 + u2 is also a solution. This solution is
called a superposition of waves u1 and u2 and leads to
the phenomena of interference.
When two or more waves co-propagate, the propagation
can be considered to be the superposition of all the co-
propagating waves. This phenomena is called wave

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Superposition of Waves
As pointed out in the previous slide superposition of
two waves is determined by the phase difference, so let
us write u1 = A1sin(kx t) and u2 = A2 sin(kx t + ),
where is the phase difference between u1 and u2.
The superposition of u1 and u2 = usup can be written as,
usup = Asupsin(kx t + s) where the new amplitude
Asup2 = A12 + A22 + 2A1A2cos(), in terms of intensity
this is

Isup = I1 + I2 + 2I1I2cos()

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Interference Signal
The superposed intensity derived in the previous slide
will be a sinusoidal function in terms of the phase
difference. It will attain a maximum value of (a1 + a2)2
when phase difference is 0 or even multiples of and
minimum of (a1 a2)2 when the phase difference is odd
multiples of . The former case is called constructive
interference and the latter is destructive interference.
Specifically when a1 = a2, destructive interference results
in total attenuation of the wave, i.e. there is no resultant

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Interference Signal
How can we produce two waves with a phase difference
from a single light source? We do this by creating optical
delays. Imagine a wave u2 which has travelled an extra
distance of d with respect to the wave u1, then from the
wave solution we see that u2 will have a phase difference
of kd with respect to u1, where k is the wave vector.

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Optical Phase Difference
Having two waves travel different distances is a way to
create a phase difference between two waves. Another
way is for the two waves to go through media with
different refractive indices. As the speed of propagation is
different in different media, the two waves will acquire a
phase difference as they propagate through the media.
The phase difference in this case can be written as =
k0(n2 n1)d. Here k0 is the wave vector in vacuum, n2 and
n1 are the refractive indices of the media and d is the
distance of propagation.

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Optical Phase Contrast
The phase difference produced as mentioned above is
useful in a form of imaging called phase contrast or
interference contrast. When object of interest is not
absorbing, there is no contrast from the surrounding. But
the phase could be different creating a contrast.

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Youngs Double Slit Experiment
In the early 19th century, Thomas Young
conducted a famous experiment that
conclusively demonstrated the wave nature
of light. He created a setup as shown in the
diagram where a pinhole acts as a point
source of light and this is divided by two
pinholes or double slits. As shown by the
rays, different points along the screen have
different phase differences between the
waves because they are travelling different
distances. Young was able to obtain an
interference pattern using this experiment
which confirmed the wave picture. In some
areas where the phase difference was odd
multiples of , there were dark fringes due
to destructive interference.
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Analysis of Double Slit Interference Pattern
The path difference between the two waves
as represented by the lines is approximately D
equal to SP where the dashed line SP is
normal to the light path SD. From geometry,
SP = dsin, where d is the distance between
the slits (pinholes) S

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Analysis of Double Slit Interference
Therefore, the phase difference
between SD and SD is kdsin. As
we saw before, when the phase
difference is an even multiple of ,
there is constructive interference
and therefore that spot is bright.
When kdsin is an odd multiple of
, then there is destructive
interference and therefore that
spot is dark. For intermediate
phase differences the intensity
gradually varies from bright to
dark. By using k = 2/, we can
write the angular positions of
minima min as,
sinmin = (m + )(/d)
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The Idea of Coherence
Why is it that it took till the early part of 19th century for
the observation of interference effect?
The answer lies in the idea of coherence. When we
superposed two waves with a phase difference f, we
treated the wavevector k as being the same at all points
in space and time, similarly we treated f also to be the
same at all points in space and time. What is k was a
random function of space and time? Then we wouldnt
be able to get a nice relation for the superposed wave.
The phase difference between the waves would then be
also a random function of space or time and the
interference effect would get averaged out.

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So to observe, interference effect there should be a fixed
relationship between the phases of the interfering waves.
This uniformity in phases, which is required to observe
interference is called coherence. If there is no fixed phase
relationship between co-propagating waves, such a
radiation of light is called incoherent radiation. In other
words, the wavefronts which are regular spheres or
planes or other shapes change randomly.

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Coherence can be spatial as well as temporal. An incident
radiation can be said to be spatially and temporally
coherent when the phase difference between two points at
any given time is a function of their relative separation
and time. When the phase difference between these points
at any given time can be expresses as a function of their
relative separation but changes randomly at different time
while maintaining the spatial relationship, the radiation is
spatially coherent but temporally incoherent. Similarly
one could have situations where an incident radiation is
temporally coherent but spatially incoherent.

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In practical situations, there is a coherence length within
which we can well approximate the radiation to be
spatially coherent and a coherence time within which we
can assume temporal coherence.

Most natural light sources such as lamps and sunlight

produce incoherent light which makes it difficult to
observe interference effects requiring large coherence
lengths of incident radiation. Young solved this problem
by having slits in his experimental setup.

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Coherence in Double Slit Experiment
Young used an incoherent light source for his
experiment. We know this because there were no
coherent light sources (lasers) at his time. Then how did
he get the necessary coherence to observe the
interference fringes? He passed the incident radiation
through a small pinhole, this collecting a very small area
of the radiating wavefront within which the waves are
almost coherent and then he passed this nearly coherent
light through the two pinholes which act as two spatially
coherent light sources producing a fixed phase
difference at the observation screen causing fringes to

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The phenomena of interference can be used as an image
contrast mechanism as described earlier and discussed
in detail later. In addition to that it can be used as a
metrological tool, i.e in the measurement of small
distances and refractive index changes.

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Recall that the intensity changes from maximum to
minimum when phase difference changes by . This is
equivalent to a displacement of /2 and as is ~ 500 nm,
interferometry by measuring fringe shifts can be used to
measure sub-nm displacements and fine changes in
refractive index (because it contributes to phase
difference). Therefore it serves as an excellent optical
measurement tool for applications such as characterizing
the thickness of thin films (where the wave reflected
from the top surface of the film interferes with the wave
reflected from the substrate on which the film is

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Beam Solutions
We write down the simplest wave equation which is also
called a plane wave solution because all points in a plane
have the same phase in the 3D version of the solution we
wrote down. However other solutions are possible and
are more applicable to practical situations. In practice
light beams are finite.

The wave equation in 3 dimensions can be written as

1 2u 2 2 2
u= 2 2
= 2+ 2+ 2

c t x y z

where the left hand side is called the laplacian operator

give by,

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Beam Solutions
In cylindrical coordinates, under the paraxial
approximation (i.e. propagation direction close to the
optical axis), one obtains a paraxial helmholtz equation
which admits beam-like solutions. These are solutions
that describe waves which propagate along a given
direction, say z-axis, and have a certain intensity and
phase profile across the radial direction (i.e. across the

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Some Types of Beams
The simplest beam solution is a
gaussian beam as shown in the
diagram. In a gaussian beam the
intensity is maximum at the center of
the beam and then decreases according
to a gaussian function given by
2r 2
I (r ) = I 0 exp 2

Here corresponds to the beams spot Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons


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Higher Order Beams
Gaussian beams are normally encountered with laser
outputs. It is also possible to have higher order beams
which describe several lobes as we see in the adjoining

Image courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

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