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Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared (with longer wavelengths) and the ultraviolet (with shorter wavelengths). This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).
The main source of light on Earth is the Sun. Sunlight provides the energy that green plants use to create sugars mostly in the form of starches, which release energy into the living things that digest them. This process of photosynthesis provides virtually all the energy used by living things. Historically, another important source of light for humans has been fire, from ancient campfires to modern kerosene lamps. With the development of electric lights and power systems, electric lighting has effectively replaced firelight. Some species of animals generate their own light, a process called bioluminescence. For example, fireflies use light to locate mates, and vampire squids use it to hide themselves from prey.
The primary properties of visible light are intensity, propagation direction, frequency or wavelength spectrum, and polarization, while its speed in a vacuum, 299,792,458 metres per second, is one of the fundamental constants of nature. Visible light, as with all types of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), is experimentally found to always move at this speed in a vacuum.
In physics, the term light sometimes refers to electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, whether visible or not. In this sense, gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves are also light. Like all types of EM radiation, visible light propagates as waves. However, the energy imparted by the waves is absorbed at single locations the way particles are absorbed. The absorbed energy of the EM waves is called a photon, and represents the quanta of light. When a wave of light is transformed and absorbed as a photon, the energy of the wave instantly collapses to a single location, and this location is where the photon “arrives.” This is what is called the wave function collapse. This dual wave-like and particle-like nature of light is known as the wave–particle duality. The study of light, known as optics, is an important research area in modern physics.
Generally, EM radiation, or EMR (the designation “radiation” excludes static electric and magnetic and near fields), is classified by wavelength into radio, microwave, infrared, the visible region that we perceive as light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.
The behavior of EMR depends on its wavelength. Higher frequencies have shorter wavelengths, and lower frequencies have longer wavelengths. When EMR interacts with single atoms and molecules, its behavior depends on the amount of energy per quantum it carries.
EMR in the visible light region consists of quanta (called photons) that are at the lower end of the energies that are capable of causing electronic excitation within molecules, which leads to changes in the bonding or chemistry of the molecule. At the lower end of the visible light spectrum, EMR becomes invisible to humans (infrared) because its photons no longer have enough individual energy to cause a lasting molecular change (a change in conformation) in the visual molecule retinal in the human retina, which change triggers the sensation of vision.
There exist animals that are sensitive to various types of infrared, but not by means of quantum-absorption. Infrared sensing in snakes depends on a kind of natural thermal imaging, in which tiny packets of cellular water are raised in temperature by the infrared radiation. EMR in this range causes molecular vibration and heating effects, which is how these animals detect it.
Above the range of visible light, ultraviolet light becomes invisible to humans, mostly because it is absorbed by the cornea below 360 nanometers and the internal lens below 400. Furthermore, the rods and cones located in the retina of the human eye cannot detect the very short (below 360 nm) ultraviolet wavelengths and are in fact damaged by ultraviolet. Many animals with eyes that do not require lenses (such as insects and shrimp) are able to detect ultraviolet, by quantum photon-absorption mechanisms, in much the same chemical way that humans detect visible light.
Various sources define visible light as narrowly as 420 to 680 to as broadly as 380 to 800 nm. Under ideal laboratory conditions, people can see infrared up to at least 1050 nm; children and young adults may perceive ultraviolet wavelengths down to about 310 to 313 nm.
The speed of light in a vacuum is defined to be exactly 299,792,458 m/s (approx. 186,282 miles per second). The fixed value of the speed of light in SI units results from