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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: January 2010

2 - Historical milestones


Light waves à la Huygens

While the geometers derive their theorems from secure and unchallengeable principles, here the principles prove true through the deductions one draws from them.

Christian Huygens (Traité de la Lumiére)

Christian Huygens (1629–1695) is rightfully considered to be the founder of the wave theory of light. The fundamental principle enabling us to understand the propagation of light bears his name. It has found its way into textbooks together with the descriptions of reflection and refraction which are based on it.

However, when we make the effort and read Huygens' Treatise of Light (Huygens, 1690) we find to our surprise that his wave concept differs considerably from ours. When we speak of a wave we mean a motion periodic in space and time: at each position the displacement (think about a water wave, for instance) realizes a harmonic oscillation with a certain frequency ν, and an instantaneous picture of the whole wave shows a continuous sequence of hills and valleys. However, this periodicity property which seems to us to be a characteristic of a wave is completely absent in Huygens' wave concept. His waves do not have either a frequency or a wavelength! Huygens' concept of wave generation is that of a (point-like) source which is, at the same time, the wave center inducing, through “collisions” that “do not succeed one another at regular intervals,” a “tremor” of the ether particles.