Light is at once both obvious and mysterious. We are bathed in yellow warmth every day and stave off the darkness with incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. But what exactly is light? We catch glimpses of its nature when a sunbeam angles through a dust-filled room, when a rainbow appears after a storm or when a drinking straw in a glass of water looks disjointed. These glimpses, however, only lead to more questions. Does light travel as a wave, a ray or a stream of particles? Is it a single color or many colors mixed together? Does it have a frequency like sound? And what are some of the common properties of light, such as absorption, reflection, refraction and diffraction? You might think scientists know all the answers, but light continues to surprise them. Here's an example: We've always taken for granted that light travels faster than anything in the universe. Then, in 1999, researchers at Harvard University were able to slow a beam of light down to 38 miles an hour (61 kilometers per hour) by passing it through a state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. That's almost 18 million times slower than normal! No one would have thought such a feat possible just a few years ago, yet this is the capricious way of light. Just when you think you have it figured out, it defies your efforts and seems to change its nature. Still, we've come a long way in our understanding. Some of the brightest minds in the history of science have focused their powerful intellects on the subject. Albert Einstein tried to imagine what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. "What if one were to run after a ray of light?" he asked. "What if one were riding on the beam? … If one were to run fast enough, would it no longer move at all?" Einstein, though, is getting ahead of the story. To appreciate how light works, we have to put it in its proper historical context. Our first stop is the ancient world, where some of the earliest scientists and philosophers pondered the true nature of this mysterious substance that stimulates sight and makes things visible. What Is Light?
Over the centuries, our view of light has changed dramatically. The first real theories about light came from the ancient Greeks. Many of these theories sought to describe light as a ray -- a straight line moving from one point to another. Pythagoras, best known for the theorem of the right-angled triangle, proposed that vision resulted from light rays emerging from a person's eye and striking an object. Epicurus argued the opposite: Objects produce light rays, which then travel to the eye. Other Greek philosophers -- most notably Euclid and Ptolemy -- used ray diagrams quite successfully to show how light bounces off a smooth surface or bends as it passes from one transparent medium to another. Arab scholars took these ideas and honed them even further, developing what is now known as geometrical optics -- applying geometrical methods to the optics of lenses, mirrors and prisms. The most famous practitioner of geometrical optics was Ibn al-Haytham, who lived in present-day Iraq between A.D. 965 and 1039. Ibn al-Haytham identified the optical components of the human eye and correctly described vision as a process involving light rays bouncing from an object to a person's eye. The Arab scientist also invented the pinhole camera, discovered the laws of refraction and studied a number of light-based phenomena, such as rainbows and eclipses. By the 17th century, some prominent European scientists began to think differently about light. One key figure was the Dutch mathematician-astronomer Christiaan Huygens. In 1690, Huygens published his "Treatise on Light," in which he described the undulatory theory. In this theory, he speculated on the existence of some invisible medium -- an ether -- filling all empty space between objects. He further speculated that light forms when a luminous body causes a series of waves or vibrations in this ether. Those waves then advance forward...
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