In physics, the term \"light\" may refer more broadly to electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, whether visible or not. In this sense, gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves are also light. The primary properties of light are intensity, propagation direction, frequency or wavelength spectrum and polarization. Its speed in vacuum, 299792458 m/s, is one of the fundamental constants of nature. Like all types of electromagnetic radiation, visible light propagates by massless elementary particles called photons that represents the quanta of electromagnetic field, and can be analyzed as both waves and particles. The study of light, known as optics, is an important research area in modern physics.
The main source of natural light on Earth is the Sun. Historically, another important source of light for humans has been fire, from ancient campfires to modern kerosene lamps. With the development of electric lights and power systems, electric lighting has effectively replaced firelight.
Generally, electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is classified by wavelength into radio waves, microwaves, infrared, the visible spectrum that we perceive as light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. The designation \"radiation\" excludes static electric, magnetic and near fields.
EMR in the visible light region consists of quanta (called photons) that are at the lower end of the energies that are capable of causing electronic excitation within molecules, which leads to changes in the bonding or chemistry of the molecule. At the lower end of the visible light spectrum, EMR becomes invisible to humans (infrared) because its photons no longer have enough individual energy to cause a lasting molecular change (a change in conformation) in the visual molecule retinal in the human retina, which change triggers the sensation of vision.
Above the range of visible light, ultraviolet light becomes invisible to humans, mostly because it is absorbed by the cornea below 360 nm and the internal lens below 400 nm. Furthermore, the rods and cones located in the retina of the human eye cannot detect the very short (below 360 nm) ultraviolet wavelengths and are in fact damaged by ultraviolet. Many animals with eyes that do not require lenses (such as insects and shrimp) are able to detect ultraviolet, by quantum photon-absorption mechanisms, in much the same chemical way that humans detect visible light.
The speed of light in vacuum is defined to be exactly 299 792 458 m/s (approx. 186,282 miles per second). The fixed value of the speed of light in SI units results from the fact that the metre is now defined in terms of the speed of light. All forms of electromagnetic radiation move at exactly this same speed in vacuum.
Different physicists have attempted to measure the speed of light throughout history. Galileo attempted to measure the speed of light in the seventeenth century. An early experiment to measure the speed of light was conducted by Ole Rømer, a Danish physicist, in 1676. Using a telescope, Rømer observed the motions of Jupiter and one of its moons, Io. Noting discrepancies in the apparent period of Io's orbit, he calculated that light takes about 22 minutes to traverse the diameter of Earth's orbit. However, its size was not known at that time. If Rømer had known the diameter of the Earth's orbit, he would have calculated a speed of 227000000 m/s.
Another more accurate measurement of the speed of light was performed in Europe by Hippolyte Fizeau in 1849. Fizeau directed a beam of light at a mirror several kilometers away. A rotating cog wheel was placed in the path of the light beam as it traveled from the source, to the mirror and then returned to its origin. Fizeau found that at a certain rate of rotation, the beam would pass through one gap in the wheel on the way out and the next gap on the way back. Knowing the distance to the mirror, the number of teeth on the wheel and the rate of rotation, Fizeau was able to calculate the speed of light as 313000000 m/s.
Léon Foucault carried out an experiment which used rotating mirrors to obtain a value of 298 000 000 m/s in 1862. Albert A. Michelson conducted experiments on the speed of light from 1877 until his death in 1931. He refined Foucault's methods in 1926 using improved rotating mirrors to measure the time it took light to make a round trip from Mount Wilson to Mount San Antonio in California. The precise measurements yielded a speed of 299 796 000 m/s.
The study of light and the interaction of light and matter is termed optics. The observation and study of optical phenomena such as rainbows and the aurora borealis offer many clues as to the nature of light.
A transparent object allows light to transmit or pass through. Conversely, an opaque object does not allow light to transmit through and instead reflecting or absorbing the light it receives. Most objects do not reflect or transmit light specularly and to some degree scatters the incoming light, which is called glossiness. Surface scatterance is caused by the surface roughness of the reflecting surfaces, and internal scatterance is caused by the difference of refractive index between the particles and medium inside the object. Like transparent objects, translucent objects allow light to transmit through, but translucent objects also scatter certain wavelength of light via internal scatterance.
When a beam of light crosses the boundary between a vacuum and another medium, or between two different media, the wavelength of the light changes, but the frequency remains constant. If the beam of light is not orthogonal (or rather normal) to the boundary, the change in wavelength results in a change in the direction of the beam. This change of direction is known as refraction.
The refractive quality of lenses is frequently used to manipulate light in order to change the apparent size of images. Magnifying glasses, spectacles, contact lenses, microscopes and refracting telescopes are all examples of this manipulation.
There are many sources of light. A body at a given temperature emits a characteristic spectrum of black-body radiation. A simple thermal source is sunlight, the radiation emitted by the chromosphere of the Sun at around 6,000 K (5,730 C; 10,340 F). Solar radiation peaks in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum when plotted in wavelength units, and roughly 44% of the radiation that reaches the ground is visible. Another example is incandescent light bulbs, which emit only around 10% of their energy as visible light and the remainder as infrared. A common thermal light source in history is the glowing solid particles in flames, but these also emit most of their radiation in the infrared and only a fraction in the visible spectrum.
Deceleration of a free charged particle, such as an electron, can produce visible radiation: cyclotron radiation, synchrotron radiation and bremsstrahlung radiation are all examples of this. Particles moving through a medium faster than the speed of light in that medium can produce visible Cherenkov radiation. Certain chemicals produce visible radiation by chemoluminescence. In living things, this process is called bioluminescence. For example, fireflies produce light by this means and boats moving through water can disturb plankton which produce a glowing wake.
Certain substances produce light when they are illuminated by more energetic radiation, a process known as fluorescence. Some substances emit light slowly after excitation by more energetic radiation. This is known as phosphorescence. Phosphorescent materials can also be excited by bombarding them with subatomic particles. Cathodoluminescence is one example. This mechanism is used in cathode-ray tube television sets and computer monitors.
Light is measured with two main alternative sets of units: radiometry consists of measurements of light power at all wavelengths, while photometry measures light with wavelength weighted with respect to a standardized model of human brightness perception. Photometry is useful, for example, to quantify Illumination (lighting) intended for human use.
The photometry units are different from most systems of physical units in that they take into account how the human eye responds to light. The cone cells in the human eye are of three types which respond differently across the visible spectrum and the cumulative response peaks at a wavelength of around 555 nm. Therefore, two sources of light which produce the same intensity (W/m2) of visible light do not necessarily appear equally bright. The photometry units are designed to take this into account and therefore are a better representation of how \"bright\" a light appears to be than raw intensity. They relate to raw power by a quantity called luminous efficacy and are used for purposes like determining how to best achieve sufficient illumination for various tasks in indoor and outdoor settings. The illumination measured by a photocell sensor does not necessarily correspond to what is perceived by the human eye and without filters which may be costly, photocells and charge-coupled devices (CCD) tend to respond to some infrared, ultraviolet or both.
Light exerts physical pressure on objects in its path, a phenomenon which can be deduced by Maxwell's equations, but can be more easily explained by the particle nature of light: photons strike and transfer their momentum. Light pressure is equal to the power of the light beam divided by c, the speed of light. Due to the magnitude of c, the effect of light pressure is negligible for everyday objects. For example, a one-milliwatt laser pointer exerts a force of about 3.3 piconewtons on the object being illuminated; thus, one could lift a U.S. penny with laser pointers, but doing so would require about 30 billion 1-mW laser pointers. However, in nanometre-scale applications such as nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS), the effect of light pressure is more significant