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12.1: The Ray Model of Light

Ads for one Macintosh computer bragged that it could do an arithmetic calculation in less time than it took for the light to get from the screen to your eye. We find this impressive because of the contrast between the speed of light and the speeds at which we interact with physical objects in our environment. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us, then, that Newton succeeded so well in explaining the motion of objects, but was far less successful with the study of light.

The climax of our study of electricity and magnetism was discovery that light is an electromagnetic wave. Knowing this, however, is not the same as knowing everything about eyes and telescopes. In fact, the full description of light as a wave can be rather cumbersome. We will instead spend most of our treatment of optics making use of a simpler model of light, the ray model, which does a fine job in most practical situations. Not only that, but we will even backtrack a little and start with a discussion of basic ideas about light and vision that predated the discovery of electromagnetic waves.

12.1.1 The nature of light

The cause and effect relationship in vision

Despite its title, this chapter is far from your first look at light. That familiarity might seem like an advantage, but most people have never thought carefully about light and vision. Even smart people who have thought hard about vision have come up with incorrect ideas. The ancient Greeks, Arabs and Chinese had theories of light and vision, all of which were mostly wrong, and all of which were accepted for thousands of years.

One thing the ancients did get right is that there is a distinction between objects that emit light and objects that don't. When you see a leaf in the forest, it's because three different objects are doing their jobs: the leaf, the eye, and the sun. But luminous objects like the sun, a flame, or the filament of a light bulb can be seen by the eye without the presence of a third object. Emission of light is often, but not always, associated with heat. In modern times, we are familiar with a variety of objects that glow without being heated, including fluorescent lights and glow-in-the-dark toys.

How do we see luminous objects? The Greek philosophers Pythagoras (b. ca. 560 BC) and Empedocles of Acragas (b. ca. 492 BC), who unfortunately were very influential, claimed that when you looked at a candle flame, the flame and your eye were both sending out some kind of mysterious stuff, and when your eye's stuff collided with the candle's stuff, the candle would become evident to your sense of sight.

Bizarre as the Greek “collision of stuff theory” might seem, it had a couple of good features. It explained why both the candle and your eye had to be present for your sense of sight to function. The theory could also easily be expanded to explain how we see nonluminous objects. If a leaf, for instance, happened to be present at the site of the collision between your eye's stuff and the candle's stuff, then the leaf would be stimulated to express its green nature, allowing you to perceive it as green.

Modern people might feel uneasy about this theory, since it suggests that greenness exists only for our seeing convenience, implying a human precedence over natural phenomena. Nowadays, people would expect the cause and effect relationship in vision to be the other way around, with the leaf doing something to our eye rather than our eye doing something to the leaf. But how can you tell? The most common way of distinguishing cause from effect is to determine which happened first, but the process of seeing seems to occur too quickly to determine the order in which things happened. Certainly there is no obvious time lag between the moment when you move your head and the moment when your reflection in the mirror moves.

Today, photography provides the simplest experimental evidence that nothing has to be emitted from your eye and hit the leaf in order to make it “greenify.” A camera can take a picture of a leaf even if there are no eyes anywhere nearby. Since the leaf appears green regardless of whether it is being sensed by a camera, your eye, or an insect's eye, it seems to make more sense to say that the leaf's greenness is the cause, and something happening in the camera or eye is the effect.

Light is a thing, and it travels from one point to another.

Another issue that few people have considered is whether a candle's flame simply affects your eye directly, or whether it sends out light which then gets into your eye. Again, the rapidity of the effect makes it difficult to tell what's happening. If someone throws a rock at you, you can see the rock on its way to your body, and you can tell that the person affected you by sending a material substance your way, rather than just harming you directly with an arm motion, which would be known as “action at a distance.” It is not easy to do a similar observation to see whether there is some “stuff” that travels from the candle to your eye, or whether it is a case of action at a distance.

Newtonian physics includes both action at a distance (e.g., the earth's gravitational force on a falling object) and contact forces such as the normal force, which only allow distant objects to exert forces on each other by shooting some substance across the space between them (e.g., a garden hose spraying out water that exerts a force on a bush).

a / Light from a candle is bumped off course by a piece of glass. Inserting the glass causes the apparent location of the candle to shift. The same effect can be produced by taking off your eyeglasses and looking at which you see near the edge of the lens, but a flat piece of glass works just as well as a lens for this purpose.

 

One piece of evidence that the candle sends out stuff that travels to your eye is that as in figure a, intervening transparent substances can make the candle appear to be in the wrong location, suggesting that light is a thing that can be bumped off course. Many people would dismiss this kind of observation as an optical illusion, however. (Some optical illusions are purely neurological or psychological effects, although some others, including this one, turn out to be caused by the behavior of light itself.)

A more convincing way to decide in which category light belongs is to find out if it takes time to get from the candle to your eye; in Newtonian physics, action at a distance is supposed to be instantaneous. The fact that we speak casually today of “the speed of light” implies that at some point in history, somebody succeeded in showing that light did not travel infinitely fast. Galileo tried, and failed, to detect a finite speed for light, by arranging with a person in a distant tower to signal back and forth with lanterns. Galileo uncovered his lantern, and when the other person saw the light, he uncovered his lantern. Galileo was unable to measure any time lag that was significant compared to the limitations of human reflexes.

b / An image of Jupiter and its moon Io (left) from the Cassini ​probe.

 

The first person to prove that light's speed was finite, and to determine it numerically, was Ole Roemer, in a series of measurements around the year 1675. Roemer observed Io, one of Jupiter's moons, over a period of several years. Since Io presumably took the same amount of time to complete each orbit of Jupiter, it could be thought of as a very distant, very accurate clock. A practical and accurate pendulum clock had recently been invented, so Roemer could check whether the ratio of the two clocks' cycles, about 42.5 hours to 1 orbit, stayed exactly constant or changed a little. If the process of seeing the distant moon was instantaneous, there would be no reason for the two to get out of step. Even if the speed of light was finite, you might expect that the result would be only to offset one cycle relative to the other. The earth does not, however, stay at a constant distance from Jupiter and its moons. Since the distance is changing gradually due to the two planets' orbital motions, a finite speed of light would make the “Io clock” appear to run faster as the planets drew near each other, and more slowly as their separation increased. Roemer did find a variation in the apparent speed of Io's orbits, which caused Io's eclipses by Jupiter (the moments when Io passed in front of or behind Jupiter) to occur about 7 minutes early when the earth was closest to Jupiter, and 7 minutes late when it was farthest. Based on these measurements, Roemer estimated the speed of light to be approximately \(2\times10^8\) m/s, which is in the right ballpark compared to modern measurements of \(3\times10^8\) m/s. (I'm not sure whether the fairly large experimental error was mainly due to imprecise knowledge of the radius of the earth's orbit or limitations in the reliability of pendulum clocks.)

c / The earth is moving toward Jupiter and Io. Since the distance is shrinking, it is taking less and less time for the light to get to us from Io, and Io appears to circle Jupiter more quickly than normal. Six months later, the earth will be on the opposite side of the sun, and receding from Jupiter and Io, so Io will appear to revolve around Jupiter more slowly.

Light can travel through a vacuum

Many people are confused by the relationship between sound and light. Although we use different organs to sense them, there are some similarities. For instance, both light and sound are typically emitted in all directions by their sources. Musicians even use visual metaphors like “tone color,” or “a bright timbre” to describe sound. One way to see that they are clearly different phenomena is to note their very different velocities. Sure, both are pretty fast compared to a flying arrow or a galloping horse, but as we have seen, the speed of light is so great as to appear instantaneous in most situations. The speed of sound, however, can easily be observed just by watching a group of schoolchildren a hundred feet away as they clap their hands to a song. There is an obvious delay between when you see their palms come together and when you hear the clap.

The fundamental distinction between sound and light is that sound is an oscillation in air pressure, so it requires air (or some other medium such as water) in which to travel. Today, we know that outer space is a vacuum, so the fact that we get light from the sun, moon and stars clearly shows that air is not necessary for the propagation of light.

Discussion Questions

◊ If you observe thunder and lightning, you can tell how far away the storm is. Do you need to know the speed of sound, of light, or of both?

◊ When phenomena like X-rays and cosmic rays were first discovered, suggest a way one could have tested whether they were forms of light.

◊ Why did Roemer only need to know the radius of the earth's orbit, not Jupiter's, in order to find the speed of light?

12.1.2 Interaction of light with matter

Absorption of light

The reason why the sun feels warm on your skin is that the sunlight is being absorbed, and the light energy is being transformed into heat energy. The same happens with artificial light, so the net result of leaving a light turned on is to heat the room. It doesn't matter whether the source of the light is hot, like the sun, a flame, or an incandescent light bulb, or cool, like a fluorescent bulb. (If your house has electric heat, then there is absolutely no point in fastidiously turning off lights in the winter; the lights will help to heat the house at the same dollar rate as the electric heater.)

This process of heating by absorption is entirely different from heating by thermal conduction, as when an electric stove heats spaghetti sauce through a pan. Heat can only be conducted through matter, but there is vacuum between us and the sun, or between us and the filament of an incandescent bulb. Also, heat conduction can only transfer heat energy from a hotter object to a colder one, but a cool fluorescent bulb is perfectly capable of heating something that had already started out being warmer than the bulb itself.

How we see nonluminous objects

Not all the light energy that hits an object is transformed into heat. Some is reflected, and this leads us to the question of how we see nonluminous objects. If you ask the average person how we see a light bulb, the most likely answer is “The light bulb makes light, which hits our eyes.” But if you ask how we see a book, they are likely to say “The bulb lights up the room, and that lets me see the book.” All mention of light actually entering our eyes has mysteriously disappeared.

Most people would disagree if you told them that light was reflected from the book to the eye, because they think of reflection as something that mirrors do, not something that a book does. They associate reflection with the formation of a reflected image, which does not seem to appear in a piece of paper.

Imagine that you are looking at your reflection in a nice smooth piece of aluminum foil, fresh off the roll. You perceive a face, not a piece of metal. Perhaps you also see the bright reflection of a lamp over your shoulder behind you. Now imagine that the foil is just a little bit less smooth. The different parts of the image are now a little bit out of alignment with each other. Your brain can still recognize a face and a lamp, but it's a little scrambled, like a Picasso painting. Now suppose you use a piece of aluminum foil that has been crumpled up and then flattened out again. The parts of the image are so scrambled that you cannot recognize an image. Instead, your brain tells you you're looking at a rough, silvery surface.

d / Two self-portraits of the author, one taken in a mirror and one with a piece of aluminum foil.

 

Mirror-like reflection at a specific angle is known as specular reflection, and random reflection in many directions is called diffuse reflection. Diffuse reflection is how we see nonluminous objects. Specular reflection only allows us to see images of objects other than the one doing the reflecting. In top part of figure d, imagine that the rays of light are coming from the sun. If you are looking down at the reflecting surface, there is no way for your eye-brain system to tell that the rays are not really coming from a sun down below you.

e / Specular and diffuse reflection.

 

f / Light bounces off of the ceiling, then off of the book.

 

Figure f shows another example of how we can't avoid the conclusion that light bounces off of things other than mirrors. The lamp is one I have in my house. It has a bright bulb, housed in a completely opaque bowl-shaped metal shade. The only way light can get out of the lamp is by going up out of the top of the bowl. The fact that I can read a book in the position shown in the figure means that light must be bouncing off of the ceiling, then bouncing off of the book, then finally getting to my eye.

This is where the shortcomings of the Greek theory of vision become glaringly obvious. In the Greek theory, the light from the bulb and my mysterious “eye rays” are both supposed to go to the book, where they collide, allowing me to see the book. But we now have a total of four objects: lamp, eye, book, and ceiling. Where does the ceiling come in? Does it also send out its own mysterious “ceiling rays,” contributing to a three-way collision at the book? That would just be too bizarre to believe!

The differences among white, black, and the various shades of gray in between is a matter of what percentage of the light they absorb and what percentage they reflect. That's why light-colored clothing is more comfortable in the summer, and light-colored upholstery in a car stays cooler that dark upholstery.

Numerical measurement of the brightness of light

We have already seen that the physiological sensation of loudness relates to the sound's intensity (power per unit area), but is not directly proportional to it. If sound A has an intensity of 1 \(\text{nW}/\text{m}^2\), sound B is 10 \(\text{nW}/\text{m}^2\), and sound C is 100 \(\text{nW}/\text{m}^2\), then the increase in loudness from B to C is perceived to be the same as the increase from A to B, not ten times greater. That is, the sensation of loudness is logarithmic.

The same is true for the brightness of light. Brightness is related to power per unit area, but the psychological relationship is a logarithmic one rather than a proportionality. For doing physics, it's the power per unit area that we're interested in. The relevant unit is \(\text{W}/\text{m}^2\). One way to determine the brightness of light is to measure the increase in temperature of a black object exposed to the light. The light energy is being converted to heat energy, and the amount of heat energy absorbed in a given amount of time can be related to the power absorbed, using the known heat capacity of the object. More practical devices for measuring light intensity, such as the light meters built into some cameras, are based on the conversion of light into electrical energy, but these meters have to be calibrated somehow against heat measurements.

Discussion Questions

◊ The curtains in a room are drawn, but a small gap lets light through, illuminating a spot on the floor. It may or may not also be possible to see the beam of sunshine crossing the room, depending on the conditions. What's going on?

◊ Laser beams are made of light. In science fiction movies, laser beams are often shown as bright lines shooting out of a laser gun on a spaceship. Why is this scientifically incorrect?

◊ A documentary film-maker went to Harvard's 1987 graduation ceremony and asked the graduates, on camera, to explain the cause of the seasons. Only two out of 23 were able to give a correct explanation, but you now have all the information needed to figure it out for yourself, assuming you didn't already know. The figure shows the earth in its winter and summer positions relative to the sun. Hint: Consider the units used to measure the brightness of light, and recall that the sun is lower in the sky in winter, so its rays are coming in at a shallower angle.

g / Discussion question C.

 

12.1.3 The ray model of light

Models of light

Note how I've been casually diagramming the motion of light with pictures showing light rays as lines on the page. More formally, this is known as the ray model of light. The ray model of light seems natural once we convince ourselves that light travels through space, and observe phenomena like sunbeams coming through holes in clouds. Having already been introduced to the concept of light as an electromagnetic wave, you know that the ray model is not the ultimate truth about light, but the ray model is simpler, and in any case science always deals with models of reality, not the ultimate nature of reality. The following table summarizes three models of light.

h / Three models of light.

 

The ray model is a generic one. By using it we can discuss the path taken by the light, without committing ourselves to any specific description of what it is that is moving along that path. We will use the nice simple ray model for most of our treatment of optics, and with it we can analyze a great many devices and phenomena. Not until section 12.5 will we concern ourselves specifically with wave optics, although in the intervening chapters I will sometimes analyze the same phenomenon using both the ray model and the wave model.

Note that the statements about the applicability of the various models are only rough guides. For instance, wave interference effects are often detectable, if small, when light passes around an obstacle that is quite a bit bigger than a wavelength. Also, the criterion for when we need the particle model really has more to do with energy scales than distance scales, although the two turn out to be related.

The alert reader may have noticed that the wave model is required at scales smaller than a wavelength of light (on the order of a micrometer for visible light), and the particle model is demanded on the atomic scale or lower (a typical atom being a nanometer or so in size). This implies that at the smallest scales we need both the wave model and the particle model. They appear incompatible, so how can we simultaneously use both? The answer is that they are not as incompatible as they seem. Light is both a wave and a particle, but a full understanding of this apparently nonsensical statement is a topic for section 13.2.

i / Examples of ray diagrams.

Ray diagrams

Without even knowing how to use the ray model to calculate anything numerically, we can learn a great deal by drawing ray diagrams. For instance, if you want to understand how eyeglasses help you to see in focus, a ray diagram is the right place to start. Many students under-utilize ray diagrams in optics and instead rely on rote memorization or plugging into formulas. The trouble with memorization and plug-ins is that they can obscure what's really going on, and it is easy to get them wrong. Often the best plan is to do a ray diagram first, then do a numerical calculation, then check that your numerical results are in reasonable agreement with what you expected from the ray diagram.

j / 1. Correct. 2. Incorrect: implies that diffuse reflection only gives one ray from each reflecting point. 3. Correct, but unnecessarily complicated.

 

Figure j shows some guidelines for using ray diagrams effectively. The light rays bend when they pass out through the surface of the water (a phenomenon that we'll discuss in more detail later). The rays appear to have come from a point above the goldfish's actual location, an effect that is familiar to people who have tried spear-fishing.

  • A stream of light is not really confined to a finite number of narrow lines. We just draw it that way. In j/1, it has been necessary to choose a finite number of rays to draw (five), rather than the theoretically infinite number of rays that will diverge from that point.
  • There is a tendency to conceptualize rays incorrectly as objects. In his Optics, Newton goes out of his way to caution the reader against this, saying that some people “consider ... the refraction of ... rays to be the bending or breaking of them in their passing out of one medium into another.” But a ray is a record of the path traveled by light, not a physical thing that can be bent or broken.
  • In theory, rays may continue infinitely far into the past and future, but we need to draw lines of finite length. In j/1, a judicious choice has been made as to where to begin and end the rays. There is no point in continuing the rays any farther than shown, because nothing new and exciting is going to happen to them. There is also no good reason to start them earlier, before being reflected by the fish, because the direction of the diffusely reflected rays is random anyway, and unrelated to the direction of the original, incoming ray.
  • When representing diffuse reflection in a ray diagram, many students have a mental block against drawing many rays fanning out from the same point. Often, as in example j/2, the problem is the misconception that light can only be reflected in one direction from one point.
  • Another difficulty associated with diffuse reflection, example j/3, is the tendency to think that in addition to drawing many rays coming out of one point, we should also be drawing many rays coming from many points. In j/1, drawing many rays coming out of one point gives useful information, telling us, for instance, that the fish can be seen from any angle. Drawing many sets of rays, as in j/3, does not give us any more useful information, and just clutters up the picture in this example. The only reason to draw sets of rays fanning out from more than one point would be if different things were happening to the different sets.
Discussion Question

◊ Suppose an intelligent tool-using fish is spear-hunting for humans. Draw a ray diagram to show how the fish has to correct its aim. Note that although the rays are now passing from the air to the water, the same rules apply: the rays are closer to being perpendicular to the surface when they are in the water, and rays that hit the air-water interface at a shallow angle are bent the most.

12.1.4 Geometry of specular reflection

To change the motion of a material object, we use a force. Is there any way to exert a force on a beam of light? Experiments show that electric and magnetic fields do not deflect light beams, so apparently light has no electric charge. Light also has no mass, so until the twentieth century it was believed to be immune to gravity as well. Einstein predicted that light beams would be very slightly deflected by strong gravitational fields, and he was proved correct by observations of rays of starlight that came close to the sun, but obviously that's not what makes mirrors and lenses work!

If we investigate how light is reflected by a mirror, we will find that the process is horrifically complex, but the final result is surprisingly simple. What actually happens is that the light is made of electric and magnetic fields, and these fields accelerate the electrons in the mirror. Energy from the light beam is momentarily transformed into extra kinetic energy of the electrons, but because the electrons are accelerating they re-radiate more light, converting their kinetic energy back into light energy. We might expect this to result in a very chaotic situation, but amazingly enough, the electrons move together to produce a new, reflected beam of light, which obeys two simple rules:

  • The angle of the reflected ray is the same as that of the incident ray.
  • The reflected ray lies in the plane containing the incident ray and the normal (perpendicular) line. This plane is known as the plane of incidence.

k / The geometry of specular reflection.

 

The two angles can be defined either with respect to the normal, like angles B and C in the figure, or with respect to the reflecting surface, like angles A and D. There is a convention of several hundred years' standing that one measures the angles with respect to the normal, but the rule about equal angles can logically be stated either as B=C or as A=D.

The phenomenon of reflection occurs only at the boundary between two media, just like the change in the speed of light that passes from one medium to another. As we have seen in section 6.2, this is the way all waves behave.

Most people are surprised by the fact that light can be reflected back from a less dense medium. For instance, if you are diving and you look up at the surface of the water, you will see a reflection of yourself.

 

self-check:

Each of these diagrams is supposed to show two different rays being reflected from the same point on the same mirror. Which are correct, and which are incorrect?

sc-two-reflections-from-same-point.png

(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)

 

Reversibility of light rays

The fact that specular reflection displays equal angles of incidence and reflection means that there is a symmetry: if the ray had come in from the right instead of the left in the figure above, the angles would have looked exactly the same. This is not just a pointless detail about specular reflection. It's a manifestation of a very deep and important fact about nature, which is that the laws of physics do not distinguish between past and future. Cannonballs and planets have trajectories that are equally natural in reverse, and so do light rays. This type of symmetry is called time-reversal symmetry.

Typically, time-reversal symmetry is a characteristic of any process that does not involve heat. For instance, the planets do not experience any friction as they travel through empty space, so there is no frictional heating. We should thus expect the time-reversed versions of their orbits to obey the laws of physics, which they do. In contrast, a book sliding across a table does generate heat from friction as it slows down, and it is therefore not surprising that this type of motion does not appear to obey time-reversal symmetry. A book lying still on a flat table is never observed to spontaneously start sliding, sucking up heat energy and transforming it into kinetic energy.

Similarly, the only situation we've observed so far where light does not obey time-reversal symmetry is absorption, which involves heat. Your skin absorbs visible light from the sun and heats up, but we never observe people's skin to glow, converting heat energy into visible light. People's skin does glow in infrared light, but that doesn't mean the situation is symmetric. Even if you absorb infrared, you don't emit visible light, because your skin isn't hot enough to glow in the visible spectrum.

These apparent heat-related asymmetries are not actual asymmetries in the laws of physics. The interested reader may wish to learn more about this from optional chapter 5 on thermodynamics.

Example 1: Ray tracing on a computer

A number of techniques can be used for creating artificial visual scenes in computer graphics. Figure l shows such a scene, which was created by the brute-force technique of simply constructing a very detailed ray diagram on a computer. This technique requires a great deal of computation, and is therefore too slow to be used for video games and computer-animated movies. One trick for speeding up the computation is to exploit the reversibility of light rays. If one was to trace every ray emitted by every illuminated surface, only a tiny fraction of those would actually end up passing into the virtual “camera,” and therefore almost all of the computational effort would be wasted. One can instead start a ray at the camera, trace it backward in time, and see where it would have come from. With this technique, there is no wasted effort.

l / This photorealistic image of a nonexistent countertop was produced completely on a computer, by computing a complicated ray diagram.

Discussion Questions

◊ If a light ray has a velocity vector with components \(c_x\) and \(c_y\), what will happen when it is reflected from a surface that lies along the \(y\) axis? Make sure your answer does not imply a change in the ray's speed.

m / Discussion question B.

Generalizing your reasoning from discussion question A, what will happen to the velocity components of a light ray that hits a corner, as shown in the figure, and undergoes two reflections?

n / Discussion question C.

Three pieces of sheet metal arranged perpendicularly as shown in the figure form what is known as a radar corner. Let's assume that the radar corner is large compared to the wavelength of the radar waves, so that the ray model makes sense. If the radar corner is bathed in radar rays, at least some of them will undergo three reflections. Making a further generalization of your reasoning from the two preceding discussion questions, what will happen to the three velocity components of such a ray? What would the radar corner be useful for?

The principle of least time for reflection

We had to choose between an unwieldy explanation of reflection at the atomic level and a simpler geometric description that was not as fundamental. There is a third approach to describing the interaction of light and matter which is very deep and beautiful. Emphasized by the twentieth-century physicist Richard Feynman, it is called the principle of least time, or Fermat's principle.

Let's start with the motion of light that is not interacting with matter at all. In a vacuum, a light ray moves in a straight line. This can be rephrased as follows: of all the conceivable paths light could follow from P to Q, the only one that is physically possible is the path that takes the least time.

o / The solid lines are physically possible paths for light rays traveling from A to B and from A to C. They obey the principle of least time. The dashed lines do not obey the principle of least time, and are not physically possible.

 

What about reflection? If light is going to go from one point to another, being reflected on the way, the quickest path is indeed the one with equal angles of incidence and reflection. If the starting and ending points are equally far from the reflecting surface, o, it's not hard to convince yourself that this is true, just based on symmetry. There is also a tricky and simple proof, shown in figure p, for the more general case where the points are at different distances from the surface.

p / Paths AQB and APB are two conceivable paths that a ray could follow to get from A to B with one reflection, but only AQB is physically possible. We wish to prove that the path AQB, with equal angles of incidence and reflection, is shorter than any other path, such as APB. The trick is to construct a third point, C, lying as far below the surface as B lies above it. Then path AQC is a straight line whose length is the same as AQB's, and path APC has the same length as path APB. Since AQC is straight, it must be shorter than any other path such as APC that connects A and C, and therefore AQB must be shorter than any path such as APB.

 

Not only does the principle of least time work for light in a vacuum and light undergoing reflection, we will also see in a later chapter that it works for the bending of light when it passes from one medium into another.

Although it is beautiful that the entire ray model of light can be reduced to one simple rule, the principle of least time, it may seem a little spooky to speak as if the ray of light is intelligent, and has carefully planned ahead to find the shortest route to its destination. How does it know in advance where it's going? What if we moved the mirror while the light was en route, so conditions along its planned path were not what it “expected?” The answer is that the principle of least time is really a shortcut for finding certain results of the wave model of light, which is the topic of the last chapter of this book.

q / Light is emitted at the center of an elliptical mirror. There are four physically possible paths by which a ray can be reflected and return to the center.

 

There are a couple of subtle points about the principle of least time. First, the path does not have to be the quickest of all possible paths; it only needs to be quicker than any path that differs infinitesimally from it. In figure p, for instance, light could get from A to B either by the reflected path AQB or simply by going straight from A to B. Although AQB is not the shortest possible path, it cannot be shortened by changing it infinitesimally, e.g., by moving Q a little to the right or left. On the other hand, path APB is physically impossible, because it is possible to improve on it by moving point P infinitesimally to the right.

It's not quite right to call this the principle of least time. In figure q, for example, the four physically possible paths by which a ray can return to the center consist of two shortest-time paths and two longest-time paths. Strictly speaking, we should refer to the principle of least or greatest time, but most physicists omit the niceties, and assume that other physicists understand that both maxima and minima are possible.

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