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Light and Color. Susan Burke T.J. Sarlina. Fermilab. Tevatron, 4 miles around. Main Injector, 2 miles around. What is light?. We see light as color and brightness It’s actually electromagnetic radiation: Partly electric, partly magnetic Flows in straight line (radiates).

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light and color

Light and Color

Susan Burke

T.J. Sarlina




4 miles around

Main Injector,

2 miles around

what is light

What is light?

We see light as color and brightness

It’s actually electromagnetic radiation:

Partly electric, partly magnetic

Flows in straight line (radiates)

where does light come from
Where does light come from?
  • The Sun and stars
  • But how do they make light?
it all starts with atoms
It All Starts With Atoms
  • A nucleus surrounded by electrons that orbit.
  • Like the planets in the solar system, electrons stay in the same orbit, unless…
electrons change orbits
Electrons Change Orbits
  • Electrons get kicked into a different orbit
  • This doesn’t happen very often in solar systems, but it does in atoms
  • If you add energy to an atom (heat it up), the electrons will jump to bigger orbits.
  • When atom cools, electrons jump back to original orbits.
  • As they jump back, they emit light, a form of energy
color of light
Color of light
  • Each electron that jumps back emits one photon of light
  • The color of this light depends on how big the jump was between orbits
  • The bigger the jump, the higher the energy.
  • The energy determines color; a blue photon has more energy than a red
light as a particle
Light as a particle
  • A photon is like a particle, but it has no mass
  • Think of a photon as a grain of sand.
  • We see so many photons at the same time it’s like seeing all the sand on a beach or a dune.
  • We don’t notice the single grains
light as a wave
Light as a wave
  • But sometimes light acts like a wave
  • A wave has a wavelength, a speed and a frequency.
  • The energy goes up as frequency goes up
  • Color depends on frequency
  • Wavelength gets shorter as frequency goes up

Wave behavior and polarization

Light waves can be filtered with special equipment like sunglasses.

More sets of filters can completely block light in the right combination.

speed of light
Speed of light
  • Light travels at 300,000,000 meters/second or 186,000 miles/second
  • All light travels same speed (in vacuum)
  • It takes 8 minutes for a light wave (or a photon) to travel from the sun to the earth.
  • Distance is 93,000,000 miles.
does light bend
Does light bend?

We see the moon because it reflects the sun’s light

It takes 1 second for light reflected off the moon to reach the earth.

During this lunar eclipse the moon looks red because sunlight bends around the earth and blue is filtered out.

Total Lunar Eclipse – February 20, 2008

Picture courtesy of The Daily Herald

light and matter
Light and matter

When light hits something (air, glass, a green wall, a black dress), it may be:

  • Transmitted (if the thing is transparent)
  • Reflected or scattered (mirror or raindrops)
  • Absorbed (off a black velvet dress)
  • Some combination of the three

The waves can pass through the object

The waves can be reflected off the object.

The waves can be scattered off the object.

The waves can be absorbed by the object.

The waves can be refracted through the object.

light transmission and color
Lighttransmission and color
  • Transparent materials transmit light, like windows.
  • Different frequencies have different speeds in transparent materials – that causes a prism to separate the colors.
  • Colored glass or plastic only transmits the color that it is; it absorbs the other colors.
reflection and color
Reflection and color
  • Remember, white light contains all colors (a prism or raindrop separates them so we can see a rainbow)
  • Why does a green wall look green in the sunshine?
  • A green wall reflects only green light; it absorbs all the other colors.
  • Why does it look different when it’s in the shade?
  • In the dark, it’s black. No light reflects off it.
absorption and color
Absorption and color
  • Why is a black car hotter than a white car in the summer?
  • Remember light is energy. Heat is another form of energy.
  • A white car reflects all wavelengths of light.
  • A black car absorbs all wavelengths of light, absorbing the energy and turning it to heat.
using light to study the stars
Using Light to Study the Stars

Astronomers collect energy from the stars with a telescope

Visible light

Infrared light

Radio waves, etc.

Each atom has a special pattern of light frequencies like a fingerprint

The fingerprint of frequencies will be shifted if the star is moving away or toward us (like the sound of a freight train)

The temperature of the Star can be determined from the color of the star


Two pictures of the Ring Nebula.

Visible light

Infrared light

visit fermilab www fnal gov
  • Buffalo viewing
  • Bicycling
  • Walking
  • Roller blading
  • Canoeing
  • Fishing