(15 minutes or less)
Fill the container with water. Place the light source so that the beam shines through the container. Add powdered milk a pinch at a time; stir until you can clearly see the beam shining through the liquid.
(15 minutes or more)
Look at the beam from the side of the tank and then from the end of the tank. You can also let the light project onto a white card, which you hold at the end of the tank. From the side, the beam looks bluish-white; from the end, it looks yellow-orange.
If you have added enough milk to the water, you will be able to see the color of the beam change from blue-white to yelloworange along the length of the beam.
If you want to look at a narrower beam of light, use a paper hole-punch to punch a hole in the unexposed black slide or in a piece of 35 mm film, or even in an index card cut to size. Place the slide, film, or index card in the projector. (Do not hold it in front of the lens.) Focus the projector to obtain a sharp beam.
The sun produces white light, which is made up of light of all colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Light is a wave, and each of these colors corresponds to a different frequency, and therefore wavelength, of light. The colors in the rainbow spectrum are arranged according to their frequency: violet, indigo, and blue light have a higher frequency than red, orange, and yellow light.
When the white light from the sun shines through the earth's atmosphere, it collides with gas molecules. These molecules scatter the light.
The shorter the wavelength of light, the more it is scattered by the atmosphere. Because it has a shorter wavelength, blue light is scattered ten times more than red light.
Blue light also has a frequency that is closer to the resonant frequency of atoms than that of red light. That is, if the electrons bound to air molecules are pushed, they will oscillate with a natural frequency that is even higher than the frequency of blue light. Blue light pushes on the electrons with a frequency that is closer to their natural resonant frequency than that of red light. This causes the blue light to be reradiated out in all directions, in a process called scattering. The red light that is not scattered continues on in its original direction. When you look up in the sky, the scattered blue light is the light that you see.
Why does the setting sun look reddish orange? When the sun is on the horizon, its light takes a longer path through the atmosphere to your eyes than when the sun is directly overhead. By the time the light of the setting sun reaches your eyes, most of the blue light has been scattered out. The light you finally see is reddish orange, the color of white light minus blue.
Violet light has an even shorter wavelength than blue light: It scatters even more than blue light does. So why isn't the sky violet? Because there is just not enough of it. The sun puts out much more blue light than violet light, so most of the scattered light in the sky is blue.
Scattering can polarize light. Place a polarizing filter between the projector and the tank. Turn the filter while one person views the transmitted beam from the top and another views it from the side. Notice that when the top person sees a bright beam, the side person will see a dim beam, and vice versa.
You can also hold the polarizing filter between your eyes and the tank and rotate the filter to make the beam look bright or dim. The filter and the scattering polarize the light. When the two polarizations are aligned, the beam will be bright; when they are at right angles, the beam will be dim.
Scattering polarizes light because light is a transverse wave. The direction of the transverse oscillation of the electric field is called the direction of polarization of light.
The beam of light from the slide projector contains photons of light that are polarized in all directions. horizontally, vertically, and all angles in between. Consider only the vertically polarized light passing through the tank. This light can scatter to the side and remain vertically polarized, but it cannot scatter upward! To retain the characteristic of a transverse wave after scattering, only the vertically polarized light can be scattered sideways, and only the horizontally polarized light can be scattered upward. This is shown in the drawing.