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3.0: Prelude to Interference

The most certain indication of a wave is interference. This wave characteristic is most prominent when the wave interacts with an object that is not large compared with the wavelength. Interference is observed for water waves, sound waves, light waves, and, in fact, all types of waves.


Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Soap bubbles are blown from clear fluid into very thin films. The colors we see are not due to any pigmentation but are the result of light interference, which enhances specific wavelengths for a given thickness of the film.

If you have ever looked at the reds, blues, and greens in a sunlit soap bubble and wondered how straw-colored soapy water could produce them, you have hit upon one of the many phenomena that can only be explained by the wave character of light (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). The same is true for the colors seen in an oil slick or in the light reflected from a DVD disc. These and other interesting phenomena cannot be explained fully by geometric optics. In these cases, light interacts with objects and exhibits wave characteristics. The branch of optics that considers the behavior of light when it exhibits wave characteristics is called wave optics (sometimes called physical optics). It is the topic of this chapter.


  • Samuel J. Ling (Truman State University), Jeff Sanny (Loyola Marymount University), and Bill Moebs with many contributing authors. This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).