Light can bend around edges.
Light bends when it passes around an edge or through a slit. This bending is called diffraction. You can easily demonstrate diffraction using a candle or a small bright flashlight bulb and a slit made with two pencils. The diffraction pattern, the pattern of dark and light created when light bends around an edge or edges, shows that light has wavelike properties.



(5 minutes or less) Light the candle or, if you are using a Mini-Maglite®, unscrew the top of the flashlight. The tiny lamp will come on and shine brightly. You can also make your own bright point source of light by attaching the Mini-Maglite® flashlight bulb to the battery holder with the clip leads. Be sure you put two AA batteries in the battery holder.

Wrap one layer of tape around the top of one of the pencils, just below the eraser.

(15 minutes or more) If you measure distances on the diffraction pattern, you can calculate the wavelength of light emitted by the candle or bulb.

Place the light at least one arm-length away from you.

Hold the two pencils vertically, side by side, with the erasers at the top. The tape wrapped around one pencil should keep the pencils slightly apart, forming a thin slit between them, just below the tape. Hold the pencils close to one eye (about 1 inch [2.5 cm] away) and look at the light source through the slit between the pencils. Squeeze the pencils together, making the slit smaller. Notice that there is a line of light perpendicular to the slit. While looking through the slit, rotate the pencils until they are horizontal, and notice that the line of light becomes vertical.

If you look closely you may see that the line is composed of tiny blobs of light. As you squeeze the slit together, the blobs of light grow larger and spread apart, moving away from the central light source and becoming easier to see. Notice that the blobs have blue and red edges and that the blue edges are closer to the light source.

Stretch a hair tight and hold it about 1 inch (2.5 cm) from your eye. Move the hair until it is between your eye and the light source, and notice that the light is spread into a line of blobs by the hair, just as it was by the slit. Rotate the hair and watch the line of blobs rotate.

Look at the light through a piece of cloth, a feather, a diffraction grating, or a piece of metal screen. Rotate each object while you look through it.

The black bands between the blobs of light show that there is a wave associated with the light. The light waves that go through the slit spread out, overlap, and add together, interacting in complex ways to produce the diffraction pattern that you see. Where the crest of one wave overlaps with the crest of another wave, the two waves combine to make a bigger wave, and you see a bright blob of light. Where the trough of one wave overlaps with the crest of another wave, the waves cancel one another out, and you see a dark band.

The angle at which the light bends is proportional to the wavelength of the light. Red light, for instance, has a longer wavelength than blue light, and so it bends more than blue light does. This different amount of bending gives the blobs their colored edges: blue on the inside, red on the outside.

The narrower the slit, the more the light spreads out. In fact, the angle between two adjacent dark bands in the diffraction pattern is inversely proportional to the width of the slit.

Thin objects, such as a strand of hair, also diffract light. Light that passes around the hair spreads out, overlaps, and produces a diffraction pattern. A piece of cloth or a feather, which are both made up of many smaller, thinner parts, produce complicated diffraction patterns.

In a dimly lit room, look at a Mini-Maglite® bulb with one eye (a candle will not work). Notice the lines of light radiating out from the light source, like the seeds radiating out from the center of a dandelion. Propose experiments to find the origin of these lines. For example, rotate the light source, and notice that the lines of light do not rotate. Rotate your head, and notice that the lines do rotate. Hold your hand or an index card in front of your eye so that it doesn't quite block your view of the light source. Notice that you still see a full circle of lines radiating out from the light source. The lines of light are spread out onto your retina by imperfections in the tissues of your cornea.