Optics is the branch of physics which involves the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.
Most optical phenomena can be accounted for using the classical electromagnetic description of light. Complete electromagnetic descriptions of light are, however, often difficult to apply in practice. Practical optics is usually done using simplified models. The most common of these, geometric optics, treats light as a collection of rays that travel in straight lines and bend when they pass through or reflect from surfaces. Physical optics is a more comprehensive model of light, which includes wave effects such as diffraction and interference that cannot be accounted for in geometric optics. Historically, the ray-based model of light was developed first, followed by the wave model of light. Progress in electromagnetic theory in the 19th century led to the discovery that light waves were in fact electromagnetic radiation.
Some phenomena depend on the fact that light has both wave-like and particle-like properties. Explanation of these effects requires quantum mechanics. When considering light’s particle-like properties, the light is modelled as a collection of particles called “photons“. Quantum optics deals with the application of quantum mechanics to optical systems.
Optical science is relevant to and studied in many related disciplines including astronomy, various engineering fields, photography, and medicine (particularly ophthalmology and optometry). Practical applications of optics are found in a variety of technologies and everyday objects, including mirrors, lenses, telescopes, microscopes, lasers, and fibre optics.
Optics began with the development of lenses by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. The earliest known lenses, made from polished crystal, often quartz, date from as early as 700 BC for Assyrian lenses such as the Layard/Nimrud lens. The ancient Romans and Greeks filled glass spheres with water to make lenses. These practical developments were followed by the development of theories of light and vision by ancient Greek and Indian philosophers, and the development of geometrical optics in the Greco-Roman world. The word optics comes from the ancient Greek word ὀπτική (optikē), meaning “appearance, look”.
Greek philosophy on optics broke down into two opposing theories on how vision worked, the “intromission theory” and the “emission theory”. The intro-mission approach saw vision as coming from objects casting off copies of themselves (called eidola) that were captured by the eye. With many propagators including Democritus, Epicurus, Aristotle and their followers, this theory seems to have some contact with modern theories of what vision really is, but it remained only speculation lacking any experimental foundation.
Plato first articulated the emission theory, the idea that visual perception is accomplished by rays emitted by the eyes. He also commented on the parity reversal of mirrors in Timaeus. Some hundred years later, Euclid wrote a treatise entitled Optics where he linked vision to geometry, creating geometrical optics. He based his work on Plato’s emission theory wherein he described the mathematical rules of perspective and described the effects of refraction qualitatively, although he questioned that a beam of light from the eye could instantaneously light up the stars every time someone blinked. Ptolemy, in his treatise Optics, held an extramission-intromission theory of vision: the rays (or flux) from the eye formed a cone, the vertex being within the eye, and the base defining the visual field. The rays were sensitive, and conveyed information back to the observer’s intellect about the distance and orientation of surfaces. He summarised much of Euclid and went on to describe a way to measure the angle of refraction, though he failed to notice the empirical relationship between it and the angle of incidence.
During the Middle Ages, Greek ideas about optics were resurrected and extended by writers in the Muslim world. One of the earliest of these was Al-Kindi (c. 801–73) who wrote on the merits of Aristotelian and Euclidean ideas of optics, favouring the emission theory since it could better quantify optical phenomena. In 984, the Persian mathematician Ibn Sahl wrote the treatise “On burning mirrors and lenses”, correctly describing a law of refraction equivalent to Snell’s law. He used this law to compute optimum shapes for lenses and curved mirrors. In the early 11th century, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) wrote the Book of Optics (Kitab al-manazir) in which he explored reflection and refraction and proposed a new system for explaining vision and light based on observation and experiment. He rejected the “emission theory” of Ptolemaic optics with its rays being emitted by the eye, and instead put forward the idea that light reflected in all directions in straight lines from all points of the objects being viewed and then entered the eye, although he was unable to correctly explain how the eye captured the rays. Alhazen’s work was largely ignored in the Arabic world but it was anonymously translated into Latin around 1200 A.D. and further summarised and expanded on by the Polish monk Witelo making it a standard text on optics in Europe for the next 400 years.
In the 13th century in medieval Europe, English bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote on a wide range of scientific topics, and discussed light from four different perspectives: an epistemology of light, a metaphysics or cosmogony of light, an etiology or physics of light, and a theology of light, basing it on the works Aristotle and Platonism. Grosseteste’s most famous disciple, Roger Bacon, wrote works citing a wide range of recently translated optical and philosophical works, including those of Alhazen, Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, Euclid, al-Kindi, Ptolemy, Tideus, and Constantine the African. Bacon was able to use parts of glass spheres as magnifying glasses to demonstrate that light reflects from objects rather than being released from them.
The first wearable eyeglasses were invented in Italy around 1286. This was the start of the optical industry of grinding and polishing lenses for these “spectacles”, first in Venice and Florence in the thirteenth century, and later in the spectacle making centres in both the Netherlands and Germany. Spectacle makers created improved types of lenses for the correction of vision based more on empirical knowledge gained from observing the effects of the lenses rather than using the rudimentary optical theory of the day (theory which for the most part could not even adequately explain how spectacles worked). This practical development, mastery, and experimentation with lenses led directly to the invention of the compound optical microscope around 1595, and the refracting telescope in 1608, both of which appeared in the spectacle making centres in the Netherlands.
In the early 17th century Johannes Kepler expanded on geometric optics in his writings, covering lenses, reflection by flat and curved mirrors, the principles of pinhole cameras, inverse-square law governing the intensity of light, and the optical explanations of astronomical phenomena such as lunar and solar eclipses and astronomical parallax. He was also able to correctly deduce the role of the retina as the actual that recorded images, finally being able to scientifically quantify the effects of different types of lenses that spectacle makers had been observing over the previous 300 years. After the invention of the telescope Kepler set out the theoretical basis on how they worked and described an improved version, known as the Keplerian telescope, using two convex lenses to produce higher magnification.
Optical theory progressed in the mid-17th century with treatises written by philosopher René Descartes, which explained a variety of optical phenomena including reflection and refraction by assuming that light was emitted by objects which produced it. This differed substantively from the ancient Greek emission theory. In the late 1660s and early 1670s, Isaac Newton expanded Descartes’ ideas into a corpuscle theory of light, famously determining that white light was a mix of colours which can be separated into its component parts with a prism. In 1690, Christiaan Huygens proposed a wave theory for light based on suggestions that had been made by Robert Hooke in 1664. Hooke himself publicly criticised Newton’s theories of light and the feud between the two lasted until Hooke’s death. In 1704, Newton published Opticks and, at the time, partly because of his success in other areas of physics, he was generally considered to be the victor in the debate over the nature of light.
Newtonian optics was generally accepted until the early 19th century when Thomas Young and Augustin-Jean Fresnel conducted experiments on the interference of light that firmly established light’s wave nature. Young’s famous double slit experiment showed that light followed the law of superposition, which is a wave-like property not predicted by Newton’s corpuscle theory. This work led to a theory of diffraction for light and opened an entire area of study in physical optics. Wave optics was successfully unified with electromagnetic theory by James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s.
The next development in optical theory came in 1899 when Max Planck correctly modelled blackbody radiation by assuming that the exchange of energy between light and matter only occurred in discrete amounts he called quanta. In 1905 Albert Einstein published the theory of the photoelectric effect that firmly established the quantization of light itself. In 1913 Niels Bohr showed that atoms could only emit discrete amounts of energy, thus explaining the discrete lines seen in emission and absorption spectra. The understanding of the interaction between light and matter which followed from these developments not only formed the basis of quantum optics but also was crucial for the development of quantum mechanics as a whole. The ultimate culmination, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, explains all optics and electromagnetic processes in general as the result of the exchange of real and virtual photons.
Quantum optics gained practical importance with the inventions of the maser in 1953 and of the laser in 1960. Following the work of Paul Dirac in quantum field theory, George Sudarshan, Roy J. Glauber, and Leonard Mandel applied quantum theory to the electromagnetic field in the 1950s and 1960s to gain a more detailed understanding of photodetection and the statistics of light.
Classical optics is divided into two main branches: geometrical (or ray) optics and physical (or wave) optics. In geometrical optics, light is considered to travel in straight lines, while in physical optics, light is considered as an electromagnetic wave.
Geometrical optics can be viewed as an approximation of physical optics that applies when the wavelength of the light used is much smaller than the size of the optical elements in the system being modelled.
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