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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - The scalar theory of diffraction


Why did it take so long for the wave theory of light to be accepted, from its instigation by Huygens in about 1660 to the conclusive demonstrations by Young and Fresnel in 1803–12? In retrospect, it may be that Huygens did not take into account the wavelength; as a result the phenomenon of interference, particularly destructive interference, was missing. Only when Huygens' construction was analyzed in quantitative detail by Young and Fresnel did interference fringes and other wavelength-dependent features appear, and when these were confirmed experimentally the wave theory became generally accepted. It was because the wavelength, as measured by Young, was so much smaller than the size of everyday objects that special experiments had to be devised in order to see the effects of the waves; these are called ‘diffraction’ or ‘interference’ experiments and will be the subject of this chapter. Even so, some everyday objects, such as the drops of water that condense on a car window or the weave of an umbrella, do have dimensions commensurate with the wavelength of light, and the way they diffract light from a distant street light is clearly visible to the unaided eye (Fig. 7.1).

The distinction between the terms diffraction and interference is somewhat fuzzy. We try to use the term diffraction as a general term for all interactions between a wave and an obstacle, with interference as the case where several separable waves are superimposed.

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