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If Light, then, consists of waves transmitted through the ether, what gives rise to the waves? Whatever sets up such wonderfully rapid series of waves must be something with an enormous vibration. We come back to the electron: all atoms of matter, as we have seen, are made up of electrons revolving in a regular orbit round a nucleus. These electrons may be affected by out-side influences, they may be agitated and their speed or vibration increased.

Electrons and Light

The particles even of a piece of cold iron are in a state of vibration. No nerves of ours are able to feel and register the waves they emit, but your cold poker is really radiating, or sending out a series of wave-movements, on every side. After what we saw about the nature of matter, this will surprise none. Put your poker in the fire for a time. The particles of the glowing coal, which are violently agitated, communicate some of their energy to the particles of iron in the poker. They move to and fro more rapidly, and the waves which they create are now able to affect your nerves and cause a sensation of heat. Put the poker again in the fire, until its temperature rises to 500° C. It begins to glow with a dull red. Its particles are now moving very violently, and the waves they send out are so short and rapid that they can be picked up by the eye—we have visible light. They would still not affect a photographic plate. Heat the iron further, and the crowds of electrons now send out waves of various lengths which blend into white light. What is happening is the agitated electrons flying round in their orbits at a speed of trillions of times a second. Make the iron "blue hot," and it pours out, in addition to light, the invisible waves which alter the film on the photographic plate. And beyond these there is a long range of still shorter waves, culminating in the X-rays, which will pass between the atoms of flesh or stone.

Nearly two hundred and fifty years ago it was proved that light travelled at least 600,000 times faster than sound. Jupiter, as we saw, has moons, which circle round it. They pass behind the body of the planet, and reappear at the other side. But it was noticed that, when Jupiter is at its greatest distance from us, the reappearance of the moon from behind it is 16 minutes and 36 seconds later than when the planet is nearest to us. Plainly this was because light took so long to cover the additional distance. The distance was then imperfectly known, and the speed of light was underrated. We now know the distance, and we easily get the velocity of light.

No doubt it seems far more wonderful to discover this within the walls of a laboratory, but it was done as long ago as 1850. A cogged wheel is so mounted that a ray of light passes between two of the teeth and is reflected back from a mirror. Now, slight as is the fraction of a second which light takes to travel that distance, it is possible to give such speed to the wheel that the next tooth catches the ray of light on its return and cuts it off. The speed is increased still further until the ray of light returns to the eye of the observer through the notch next to the one by which it had passed to the mirror! The speed of the wheel was known, and it was thus possible again to gather the velocity of light. If the shortest waves are 1/67,000 of an inch in length, and light travels at 186,000 miles a second, any person can work out that about 800 trillion waves enter the eye in a second when we see "violet."

Sorting out Light-waves

The waves sent out on every side by the energetic electrons become faintly visible to us when they reach about 1/35,000 of an inch. As they become shorter and more rapid, as the electrons increase their speed, we get, in succession, the colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Each distinct sensation of colour means a wave of different length. When they are all mingled together, as in the light of the sun, we get white light. When this white light passes through glass, the speed of the waves is lessened; and, if the ray of light falls obliquely on a triangular piece of glass, the waves of different lengths part company as they travel through it, and the light is spread out in a band of rainbow-colour. The waves are sorted out according to their lengths in the "obstacle race" through the glass. Anyone may see this for himself by holding up a wedge-shaped piece of crystal between the sunlight and the eye; the prism separates the sunlight into its constituent colours, and these various colours will be seen quite readily. Or the thing may be realised in another way. If the seven colours are painted on a wheel as shown opposite page 280 (in the proportion shown), and the wheel rapidly revolved on a pivot, the wheel will appear a dull white, the several colours will not be seen. But omit one of the colours, then the wheel, when revolved, will not appear white, but will give the impression of one colour, corresponding to what the union of six colours gives. Another experiment will show that some bodies held up between the eye and a white light will not permit all the rays to pass through, but will intercept some; a body that intercepts all the seven rays except red will give the impression of red, or if all the rays except violet, then violet will be the colour seen.


Photo: H. J. Shepstone.


In a thunderstorm we have the most spectacular display in lightning of a violent and explosive rush of electrons (electricity) from one body to another, from cloud to cloud, or to the earth. In this wonderful photograph of an electrical storm note the long branched and undulating flashes of lightning. Each flash lasts no longer than the one hundred-thousandth part of a second of time.



Light consists of waves transmitted through the ether. Waves of light differ in length. The colour of the light depends on the wave-length. Deep-red waves (the longest) are 7/250000 inch and deep-violet waves 1/67000 inch. The diagram shows two wave-motions of different wave-lengths. From crest to crest, or from trough to trough, is the length of the wave.



The electric current passing in the direction of the arrow round the electric circuit generates in the surrounding space circular magnetic circuits as shown in the diagram. It is this property which lies at the base of the electro-magnet and of the electric dynamo.



The illustration shows the lines of force between two magnets. The lines of force proceed from the north pole of one magnet to the south pole of the other. They also proceed from the north to the south poles of the same magnet. These facts are shown clearly in the diagram. The north pole of a magnet is that end of it which turns to the north when the magnet is freely suspended.

The Fate of the World

Professor Soddy has given an interesting picture of what might happen when the sun's light and heat is no longer what it is. The human eye "has adapted itself through the ages to the peculiarities of the sun's light, so as to make the most of that wave-length of which there is most.... Let us indulge for a moment in these gloomy prognostications, as to the consequences to this earth of the cooling of the sun with the lapse of ages, which used to be in vogue, but which radio-activity has so rudely shaken. Picture the fate of the world when the sun has become a dull red-hot ball, or even when it has cooled so far that it would no longer emit light to us. That does not all mean that the world would be in inky darkness, and that the sun would not emit light to the people then inhabiting this world, if any had survived and could keep themselves from freezing. To such, if the eye continued to adapt itself to the changing conditions, our blues and violets would be ultra-violet and invisible, but our dark heat would be light and hot bodies would be luminous to them which would be dark to us."

§ 12

What the Blue "Sky" means

We saw in a previous chapter how the spectroscope splits up light-waves into their colours. But nature is constantly splitting the light into its different-lengthed waves, its colours. The rainbow, where dense moisture in the air acts as a spectroscope, is the most familiar example. A piece of mother-of-pearl, or even a film of oil on the street or on water, has the same effect, owing to the fine inequalities in its surface. The atmosphere all day long is sorting out the waves. The blue "sky" overhead means that the fine particles in the upper atmosphere catch the shorter waves, the blue waves, and scatter them. We can make a tubeful of blue sky in the laboratory at any time. The beautiful pink-flush on the Alps at sunrise, the red glory that lingers in the west at sunset, mean that, as the sun's rays must struggle through denser masses of air when it is low on the horizon, the long red waves are sifted out from the other shafts.

Then there is the varied face of nature which, by absorbing some waves and reflecting others, weaves its own beautiful robe of colour. Here and there is a black patch, which absorbs all the light. White surfaces reflect the whole of it. What is reflected depends on the period of vibration of the electrons in the particular kind of matter. Generally, as the electrons receive the flood of trillions of waves, they absorb either the long or the medium or the short, and they give us the wonderful colour-scheme of nature. In some cases the electrons continue to radiate long after the sunlight has ceased to fall upon them. We get from them "black" or invisible light, and we can take photographs by it. Other bodies, like glass, vibrate in unison with the period of the light-waves and let them stream through.

Light without Heat

There are substances—"phosphorescent" things we call them—which give out a mysterious cold light of their own. It is one of the problems of science, and one of profound practical interest. If we could produce light without heat our "gas bill" would shrink amazingly. So much energy is wasted in the production of heat-waves and ultra-violet waves which we do not want, that 90 per cent. or more of the power used in illumination is wasted. Would that the glow-worm, or even the dead herring, would yield us its secret! Phosphorus is the one thing we know as yet that suits the purpose, and—it smells! Indeed, our artificial light is not only extravagant in cost, but often poor in colour. The unwary person often buys a garment by artificial light, and is disgusted next morning to find in it a colour which is not wanted. The colour disclosed by the sun was not in the waves of the artificial light.



The Spectroscope sorts out the above seven colours from sunlight (which is compounded of these seven colours). If painted in proper proportions on a wheel, as shown in the coloured illustration, and the wheel be turned rapidly on a pivot through its centre, only a dull white will be perceived. If one colour be omitted, the result will be one colour—the result of the union of the remaining six.

Beyond the waves of violet light are the still shorter and more rapid waves—the "ultra-violet" waves—which are precious to the photographer. As every amateur knows, his plate may safely be exposed to light that comes through a red or an orange screen. Such a screen means "no thoroughfare" for the blue and "beyond-blue" waves, and it is these which arrange the little grains of silver on the plate. It is the same waves which supply the energy to the little green grains of matter (chlorophyll) in the plant, preparing our food and timber for us, as will be seen later. The tree struggles upward and spreads out its leaves fanwise to the blue sky to receive them. In our coal-measures, the mighty dead forests of long ago, are vast stores of sunlight which we are prodigally using up.

The X-rays are the extreme end, the highest octave, of the series of waves. Their power of penetration implies that they are excessively minute, but even these have not held their secret from the modern physicist. From a series of beautiful experiments, in which they were made to pass amongst the atoms of a crystal, we learned their length. It is about the ten-millionth of a millimetre, and a millimetre is about the 1/25 of an inch!

One of the most recent discoveries, made during a recent eclipse of the sun, is that light is subject to gravitation. A ray of light from a star is bent out of its straight path when it passes near the mass of the sun. Professor Eddington tells us that we have as much right to speak of a pound of light as of a pound of sugar. Professor Eddington even calculates that the earth receives 160 tons of light from the sun every year!