# Light - What exactly is happening?

• cowmoo32
In summary, the conversation discusses the behavior of light and how it is perceived by humans. The participants question whether light is a wave or a particle and how it travels at the speed of light. They also mention Maxwell's equations and the theory of relativity. The concept of "seeing" and how our brains interpret light is also brought up. The conversation concludes with a discussion on the current understanding of light and the need for further research on the topic.
cowmoo32
When a source begins to emit light, what exactly is occurring to produce an instantaneous velocity of c? If we're talking about quantized photons, would it be be appropriate to say there is zero acceleration? (I would think not because technically there is no change in velocity) Or if we refer to the light as a wave function, is the wave simply propagating with a velocity of c? Or if we use the term wavicle how is its behavior described?

That is correct, light does not accelerate to c, it is always going at c from beginning to end.

So what exactly is occurring? Is a wave propagating at c and what we see as light just some sort of EM disturbance? I understand how light is reflected off of objects and into our eyes, letting us see, but what is going on between the source and the destination?

cowmoo32 said:
So what exactly is occurring? Is a wave propagating at c and what we see as light just some sort of EM disturbance? I understand how light is reflected off of objects and into our eyes, letting us see, but what is going on between the source and the destination?

What a good question!

From a physics point of view, I have often wondered exactly that. How do we see? From my limited understanding, we have to 'see' the object at the same time the photon enters the eye. Otherwise we could say that the photon carries the image.

Anyway, look forward to getting the answer on this one.

rede96 said:
What a good question!

From a physics point of view, I have often wondered exactly that. How do we see? From my limited understanding, we have to 'see' the object at the same time the photon enters the eye. Otherwise we could say that the photon carries the image.

Anyway, look forward to getting the answer on this one.

We actually see the object slightly after the light enters the retina. The retina picks up the light source and sends a nerve impulse through the optic nerve to the brain, where it is then perceived. I think about what I am perceiving and what is happening and they are largely different things. It causes me to constantly redefine what it means to see.

cowmoo32 said:
So what exactly is occurring? Is a wave propagating at c and what we see as light just some sort of EM disturbance? I understand how light is reflected off of objects and into our eyes, letting us see, but what is going on between the source and the destination?
Are you familiar with Maxwell's equations, and in particular vacuum solutions to Maxwell's equations?

I'm somewhat familiar, but it's been years since I took the class that covered them. I'll read up and get back to you.

Although you can, in quantum theory, talk about photons as particles, in relativity it is better to think of light as waves- "ripples" in the electromagnetic field. Such ripples immediately move at c just as, when you throw a rock into a pound, the ripples move immediately with whatever the wave speed is for that pond (it depends upon the depth). There is no acceleration because there is nothing "physical" actually moving with the waves.

So what exactly is occurring?

nobody knows: what we do observe is that as you stated light is instantaneous at speed c.
So when you turn on a light bulb and an electron is excited to a higher energy state, when it falls to a lower energy (different quantized energy) it emits radiation...light...but why and what is happening?? Quantum theory suggests quantum states but who ordered that??

Naty1 said:
nobody knows: what we do observe is that as you stated light is instantaneous at speed c.
So when you turn on a light bulb and an electron is excited to a higher energy state, when it falls to a lower energy (different quantized energy) it emits radiation...light...but why and what is happening?? Quantum theory suggests quantum states but who ordered that??
Ahhh there's the answer I was looking for. Amazing, we still don't know what light really is. I remember being fairly young (6 or 7) and trying to think of something that was truly 2D and I arrived on light shining on a wall; I guess something at the quantum scale is about as close to 2D as you can get.

Well, if you want posts that protest complete ignorance then Naty1 is your go-to-guy. He asserts ignorance even when something is well understood.

The fact is that there is no EM phenomena that QED doesn't accurately describe, so the claim that we don't know what is happening is wrong.

cowmoo32 said:
Ahhh there's the answer I was looking for. Amazing, we still don't know what light really is. I remember being fairly young (6 or 7) and trying to think of something that was truly 2D and I arrived on light shining on a wall; I guess something at the quantum scale is about as close to 2D as you can get.

What? Nothing about light or the particles at a quantum scale is 2d. And yes, we really do know what light is just as much as we know what an electron or proton is.

DaleSpam said:
Well, if you want posts that protest complete ignorance then Naty1 is your go-to-guy. He asserts ignorance even when something is well understood.

The fact is that there is no EM phenomena that QED doesn't accurately describe, so the claim that we don't know what is happening is wrong.

Drakkith said:
What? Nothing about light or the particles at a quantum scale is 2d. And yes, we really do know what light is just as much as we know what an electron or proton is.
I know it isn't actually 2D. I was saying something at the quantum scale is as close to 2D as you could get, in that it's extremely small/thin. I understand there is no such thing as a physical 2D space

Guess it's time to read up on QED then. Would someone mind giving me the short version of what exactly happens in the transmission of an EM wave? I think the part that is confusing for me is that no medium is required.

cowmoo32 said:
Guess it's time to read up on QED then. Would someone mind giving me the short version of what exactly happens in the transmission of an EM wave? I think the part that is confusing for me is that no medium is required.
You certainly don't need QED for that, Maxwell's equations are entirely sufficient. The short version is that even without a medium an E field which is changing in space makes a B field which is changing in time, and vice versa.

Would it be incorrect to say that the medium is spacetime?

As long as you associate the "medium" only with geometric properties like distance and time and not with material properties like density and velocity.

DaleSpam said:
As long as you associate the "medium" only with geometric properties like distance and time and not with material properties like density and velocity.
That clears things up; I was stuck thinking about something with a density.

DaleSpam said:
As long as you associate the "medium" only with geometric properties like distance and time and not with material properties like density and velocity.

That is pretty much what I was thinking.

Photons have no mass, so it is impossible for them to accelerate. This means as soon as they are created, the travel at 'c'.

Doesn't the value of evaluating the Stress Tensor harken back to the Maxwell-Faraday concept that ultimately EM parameters are in some way suspended and propagate in space because there is some sort of tension there? If so, that seems more like a medium than nothingness (that nothing provides the basis for EM wave propagation - only the numbers in a mathematical equation) ?

I don't believe the propagation of an EM wave requires any tension in a medium. The fields themselves are alternating back and forth, not any medium.

But if there is no stress, any local concentration of energy or any other parameter couldn't exist - it would immediately diffuse into the background, wouldn't it? There would be nothing to support a finite speed of propagation or diffusion.

Stress of what? Why would stress be required? This isn't a wave like in water or air. It is composed of fields. The electromagnetic field of an electron needs no medium to work. Why would a photon?

Actually the wave equations are not limited to the propagation of fields but pertain to potentials and energy, though energy indirectly because it flows in different directions than the movement of the fields.

In considering the movement of a photon, its transit will be the path of least energy resistance according to the Langrangian or Hamiltonian, won't it? If there were no stress of some type propelling it, and no type of relaxation of that stress which determines its path, then what would otherwise cause it to form and move where it moves? Sure, other physical models might work also, but to not entertain any model is pretty much saying nothing about the causation of EM propagation. And saying nothing is not particularly good science in my opinion.

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Drakkith said:
Stress of what? Why would stress be required? This isn't a wave like in water or air. It is composed of fields. The electromagnetic field of an electron needs no medium to work. Why would a photon?

Well, that's one viewpoint. It might seem that the medium is not required to exist, because the determination of electromagnetic field propagation doesn't require it. I have always found it interesting how some prefer to believe fields extend themselves by themselves unto themselves thru the nothingness. Sounds more akin to magic IMO. The fact that the medium is not required to define EM field propagation does not lead the medium doesn't exist. So while it is true that a photon's location or speed is determinable w/o description of any medium, it is an assumption (at best) that an electron (or photon) needs no medium to work. In fact, it is more likely that fields exist only because the medium exists, and that the nature of fields (in part) defines the properties of the very medium. But then, that's just my opinion.

From what I've read, both Maxwell and Einstein believed in a medium. Since neither could prove its existence and thus define it, they both left it unsaid ... except that Einstein stated any aether was superfluous to his theory. That doesn't mean it does not exist though, nor that it is more likely that it doesn't exist. Maxwell left it at fields alone, and Einstein left it at space and time, because they are measurable and thus definable. I'd submit that everything that exists is of the very medium. If no medium, the electron could not exist let alone work. But then, I haven't been able to prove it either, so :)

GrayGhost

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Believe what you want. I thought the view that there was a medium was proved incorrect about 70+ years ago?

GrayGhost said:
I have always found it interesting how some prefer to believe fields extend themselves by themselves unto themselves thru the nothingness. Sounds more akin to magic IMO.
Excellent strawman argument.

Spacetime is spacetime, not "nothingness". It lacks material properties like density and velocity, but it has geometrical properties like distance and duration and curvature. That is all that is needed for the fields to propagate.

GrayGhost said:
From what I've read, both Maxwell and Einstein believed in a medium. Since neither could prove its existence and thus define it, they both left it unsaid ... except that Einstein stated any aether was superfluous to his theory. That doesn't mean it does not exist though, nor that it is more likely that it doesn't exist. Maxwell left it at fields alone, and Einstein left it at space and time, because they are measurable and thus definable.
As far as I know, this is 100% inaccurate as a depiction of Einstein's thought. You may have gotten this impression from secondhand descriptions of the following paper:
A. Einstein, "Über den Äther," Schweizerische naturforschende Gesellschaft 105 (1924) 85
original text - http://www.wikilivres.info/wiki/Über_den_Äther
English translation of [Einstein 1924]- http://www.oe.eclipse.co.uk/nom/aether.htm
commentary by John Baez on [Einstein 1924] - http://web.archive.org/web/20070204022629/http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/RelWWW/wrong.html
In any case, it strikes me as kind of sad to debate what Einstein really thought. We might as well carry around Mao's little red book, or quote Genesis and Aristotle at each other.

GrayGhost said:
I'd submit that everything that exists is of the very medium. If no medium, the electron could not exist let alone work. But then, I haven't been able to prove it either, so :)
To make this a meaningful statement, you'd have to define terms like "everything," "exists," and "medium."

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PhilDSP said:
But if there is no stress, any local concentration of energy or any other parameter couldn't exist - it would immediately diffuse into the background, wouldn't it? There would be nothing to support a finite speed of propagation or diffusion.

It would not diffuse into the background because part of light's specifications is momentum. We have to back up to why and where the light had its inception: there was a momentum that had to be conserved, and being massless, the light's velocity has the one universal velocity for massless entities. When the self-contained electric and magnetic fields oscillate and reform, the momentum specification informs them which way to reform, and the massless specification tells it what speed.

The more fundamental mystery that cuts across all these kinds of waves and waving, and even the propagation of particles, is the conservation of momentum. Why doesn't a golf ball go any old way when I hit it? It would make life more interesting.

danR said:
The more fundamental mystery that cuts across all these kinds of waves and waving, and even the propagation of particles, is the conservation of momentum. Why doesn't a golf ball go any old way when I hit it? It would make life more interesting.
Exactly, great point. And also why it keeps traveling in the direction of the original momentum transfer? It cannot be because of its mass because light does that too and it's massless. It must be something more fundamental.

DaleSpam said:
Excellent strawman argument.

Spacetime is spacetime, not "nothingness". It lacks material properties like density and velocity, but it has geometrical properties like distance and duration and curvature. That is all that is needed for the fields to propagate.

OK, so spacetime is something as opposed to nothing, yet it is not a medium of any sort. Have you ever considered that while space, time, and curvature are all that is required to describe the propagation of fields, that they may be attributes (of many) of an underlying medium? That is, they exist only because the medium exists? I consider spacetime a medium, which I tend to refer to as the spacetime continuum, and assume it something as opposed to nothing. I do not make the assumption that anything devoid of material property is nothing. The medium is what gives rise to anything material, assuming the variations and configurations of the medium within the medium exceed some required threshhold, a threshold dictated by an inherent property of the very medium. So, all particles "are of the medium" to begin with. Classical mediums possesses electric and magnetic constants, so why should spacetime be the one thing that possesses such constants and not be a medium? It's simply not of classical fluid nature. I'm not so sure there is any difference between what I am saying and wht you are saying, yet one is right and the other is not. We may never know, or at least in our lifetimes. Granted though, mention of a medium was "left out" in Einstein's work (far as I know), although his curved spacetime has the signature of a medium written all over it.

GrayGhost

GrayGhost said:
OK, so spacetime is something as opposed to nothing, yet it is not a medium of any sort. Have you ever considered that while space, time, and curvature are all that is required to describe the propagation of fields, that they may be attributes (of many) of an underlying medium? That is, they exist only because the medium exists? I consider spacetime a medium, which I tend to refer to as the spacetime continuum, and assume it something as opposed to nothing. I do not make the assumption that anything devoid of material property is nothing.

You haven't defined what you mean by "nothing," "medium," or "devoid of material property."

bcrowell said:
To make this a meaningful statement, you'd have to define terms like "everything," "exists," and "medium."

A tall order, so I'll give the short version ...

everything ... the medium and all the variations and configurations of the medium within the medium.

exists ... that which is perceptable, or deducable from perception.

medium ... that which gives rise to all that is known to exist, including space, time, matter, and energy.

GrayGhost

bcrowell said:
You haven't defined what you mean by "nothing," "medium," or "devoid of material property."

Hmmm. OK ...

nothing ... no medium of any kind, of classical nature or not.

medium ... see last post.

devoid of material property ... any spacetime region of no rest mass.

GrayGhost

Spacetime is not a medium. From what I gather, it is a 4 dimensional geometric manifold.

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