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Physics LibreTexts

2.4: Classical Light-Waves

  • Page ID
    15732
  • Consider a classical, monochromatic, linearly-polarized, plane light-wave, propagating through a vacuum in the \(x\)-direction. It is convenient to characterize a light-wave (which is, of course, a type of electromagnetic wave) by specifying its associated electric field. Suppose that the wave is polarized such that this electric field oscillates in the \(y\)-direction. (According to standard electromagnetic theory, the magnetic field oscillates in the \(z\)-direction, in phase with the electric field, with an amplitude which is that of the electric field divided by the velocity of light in vacuum. ) Now, the electric field can be conveniently represented in terms of a complex wavefunction:

    \[\label{e2.1} \psi (x,t) = \bar{\psi}\,{\rm e}^{\,{\rm i}\,(k\,x-\omega\,t)}.\] Here, \({\rm i} = \sqrt{-1}\), \(k\) and \(\omega\) are real parameters, and \(\bar{\psi}\) is a complex wave amplitude. By convention, the physical electric field is the real part of the previous expression. Suppose that

    \[\label{e2.2} \bar{\psi} = |\bar{\psi}|\,{\rm e}^{\,{\rm i}\,\varphi},\] where \(\varphi\) is real. It follows that the physical electric field takes the form

    \[\label{e2.3} E_y(x,t) = {\rm Re}[\psi(x,t)] = |\bar{\psi}|\,\cos(k\,x-\omega\,t +\varphi),\]

    where \(|\bar{\psi}|\) is the amplitude of the electric oscillation, \(k\) the wavenumber, \(\omega\) the angular frequency, and \(\varphi\) the phase angle. In addition, \(\lambda=2\pi/k\) is the wavelength, and \(\nu=\omega/2\pi\) the frequency (in hertz).

    According to standard electromagnetic theory , the frequency and wavelength of light-waves are related according to the well-known expression

    \[c = \nu\,\lambda,\] or, equivalently,

    \[\label{e2.7} \omega = k\,c,\] where \(c=3\times 10^8\,{\rm m/s}\) is the velocity of light in vacuum. Equations (2.4.3) and (2.4.5) yield

    \[\label{e2.8} E_y(x,t) =|\bar{\psi}|\,\cos\left(k\,[x-(\omega/k)\,t]+\varphi\right)= |\bar{\psi}|\,\cos\left(k\,[x-c\,t]+\varphi\right).\]

    Note that \(E_y\) depends on \(x\) and \(t\) only via the combination \(x-c\,t\). It follows that the wave maxima and minima satisfy \[x - c\, t = {\rm constant}.\] Thus, the wave maxima and minima propagate in the \(x\)-direction at the fixed velocity

    \[\label{e2.7a} \frac{dx}{dt} = c.\]

    An expression, such as Equation (2.4.5), that determines the wave angular frequency as a function of the wavenumber, is generally termed a dispersion relation. As we have already seen, and as is apparent from Equation (2.4.6), the maxima and minima of a plane-wave propagate at the characteristic velocity

    \[v_p = \frac{\omega}{k},\] which is known as the phase-velocity. Hence, the dispersion relation (2.4.5) is effectively saying that the phase-velocity of a plane light-wave, propagating through a vacuum, always takes the fixed value \(c\), irrespective of its wavelength or frequency.

    From standard electromagnetic theory , the energy density (i.e., the energy per unit volume) of a plane light-wave is

    \[U = \frac{E_y^{\,2}}{\epsilon_0},\] where \(\epsilon_0= 8.85\times 10^{-12}\,{\rm F/m}\) is the electrical permittivity of free space. Hence, it follows from Equations (2.4.1) and (2.4.3) that

    \[\label{e2.10} U \propto |\psi|^{\,2}.\] Furthermore, a light-wave possesses linear momentum, as well as energy. This momentum is directed along the wave’s direction of propagation, and is of density

    \[\label{e2.11} G = \frac{U}{c}.\]

    Contributors

    • Richard Fitzpatrick (Professor of Physics, The University of Texas at Austin)

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