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Unit 6 Overview: Geometric and Physical Optics

7 min readmarch 15, 2023

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


AP Physics 2 🧲

61 resources
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6.0 Unit 6 Overview: Geometric and Physical Optics

Unit 6 covers Geometric and Physical Optics, which is the study of light and its properties. The unit is divided into two main parts:
  1. Geometric Optics:
    • The study of how light behaves when it interacts with lenses, mirrors, and other optical devices.
    • Topics covered include reflection, refraction, image formation, and optical instruments such as telescopes and microscopes.
  2. Physical Optics:
    • The study of the wave nature of light and how it interacts with matter.
    • Topics covered include interference, diffraction, polarization, and the interaction of light with atoms and molecules.
Some of the key concepts covered in this unit include Snell's law, the thin lens equation, Huygen's principle, interference patterns, and the photoelectric effect. Practical applications of these concepts are also explored, such as the design of eyeglasses, lasers, and fiber-optic communication systems.
By the end of this unit, you should have a good understanding of the behavior of light and how it can be manipulated for various applications.

6.1 Waves

In the context of optics, waves refer to the oscillations that occur as light travels through space. Light waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, meaning they consist of changing electric and magnetic fields that propagate through space.
Some of the key properties of light waves include:
  • Wavelength: The distance between successive peaks or troughs of a wave. It is usually denoted by the symbol λ (lambda) and is measured in units of meters (m), nanometers (nm), or other units of length.
  • Frequency: The number of waves that pass a given point in a second. It is usually denoted by the symbol f and is measured in units of hertz (Hz), which is equal to one cycle per second.
  • Amplitude: The height of the wave, which corresponds to the strength of the electric and magnetic fields. It is usually denoted by the symbol A.
Light waves can interact with matter in various ways, depending on the properties of the material and the wavelength of the light. Some materials absorb certain wavelengths of light, while others reflect or transmit it. The interaction of light with matter is a key topic in both geometric and physical optics.

6.2 Electromagnetic Waves

Electromagnetic waves are a type of wave that includes light waves and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. They consist of changing electric and magnetic fields that propagate through space, and they do not require a medium to travel through. This means that they can travel through a vacuum, unlike sound waves, which require a material medium such as air or water.
Electromagnetic waves are characterized by their wavelength and frequency, which are related by the equation c = λf, where c is the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum). This means that shorter wavelengths correspond to higher frequencies, and vice versa.
Electromagnetic waves include a range of wavelengths, from radio waves with very long wavelengths (up to thousands of meters) to gamma rays with very short wavelengths (less than one picometer). Visible light, which is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be detected by the human eye, has wavelengths ranging from about 400 to 700 nanometers.
Electromagnetic waves also have various polarization states, which describe the orientation of the electric field vector relative to the direction of propagation. Polarization is an important concept in optics, as it can affect how light interacts with matter and how it is transmitted through optical devices such as polarizers.

6.3 Periodic Waves

Periodic waves are waves that repeat themselves in both space and time. They are characterized by their wavelength, which is the distance between successive peaks or troughs of the wave, and their period, which is the time it takes for one complete wave cycle to occur. The frequency of a periodic wave, which is the number of wave cycles per unit time, is the inverse of the period.
Mathematically, periodic waves can be described by a sinusoidal function such as:
y(x, t) = A sin(kx - ωt + φ)
where y is the displacement of the wave at position x and time t, A is the amplitude of the wave, k is the wave number (related to the wavelength by k = 2π/λ), ω is the angular frequency (related to the frequency by ω = 2πf), and φ is the phase constant.
Periodic waves can be visualized using a graph of displacement versus position, known as a wave profile. The shape of the wave profile depends on the wavelength, amplitude, and frequency of the wave. For example, a wave with a longer wavelength will have a lower frequency and a broader wave profile, while a wave with a shorter wavelength will have a higher frequency and a narrower wave profile.
In optics, light waves are often treated as periodic waves. The wave nature of light is important for understanding phenomena such as interference and diffraction, which are key topics in physical optics.

6.4 Refraction, Reflection, and Absorption

Refraction, reflection, and absorption are three important ways that light waves interact with matter in optics.
Refraction occurs when a light wave passes through a medium with a different refractive index, which is a measure of how much the speed of light is reduced in the medium compared to a vacuum. When a light wave enters a medium at an angle, its direction of propagation is bent, or refracted, due to the change in speed. This is known as Snell's law, which states that the angle of refraction is related to the angle of incidence and the refractive indices of the two media.
Reflection occurs when a light wave strikes a surface and bounces back. The angle of incidence and the angle of reflection are equal and opposite, according to the law of reflection. The reflectivity of a surface depends on its optical properties and the angle of incidence of the light.
Absorption occurs when a material absorbs some or all of the energy of a light wave. The amount of absorption depends on the wavelength of the light and the properties of the material. Materials that absorb all wavelengths of visible light appear black, while materials that absorb some wavelengths and transmit others appear colored.
These three interactions of light with matter are important in many areas of optics. For example, lenses and prisms rely on the principles of refraction to bend and focus light, while mirrors use reflection to redirect light. The absorption of light is important in the design of filters, pigments, and optical coatings.

6.5 Images from Lenses and Mirrors

Lenses and mirrors are optical devices that can form images by manipulating the path of light. Images can be either real or virtual, depending on the way that light rays intersect and diverge after passing through the device.
A lens is a transparent object with at least one curved surface that can converge or diverge light rays. There are two main types of lenses: convex (or converging) lenses and concave (or diverging) lenses. Convex lenses are thicker in the middle and can focus parallel light rays to a point, known as the focal point. Concave lenses are thinner in the middle and diverge light rays.
When an object is placed in front of a convex lens, the lens forms a real image on the opposite side of the lens. The image is inverted and can be projected onto a screen. The distance between the lens and the image, known as the image distance, can be calculated using the thin lens equation:
1/f = 1/d₀ + 1/dᵢ
where f is the focal length of the lens, d₀ is the object distance (distance between the object and the lens), and dᵢ is the image distance (distance between the lens and the image).
Mirrors are another type of optical device that can form images. There are two main types of mirrors: concave mirrors and convex mirrors. A concave mirror has a surface that curves inward, while a convex mirror has a surface that curves outward.
When an object is placed in front of a concave mirror, the mirror can form either a real or a virtual image, depending on the distance between the object and the mirror. When the object is located beyond the focal point of the mirror, a real image is formed on the opposite side of the mirror. When the object is located between the mirror and the focal point, a virtual image is formed on the same side of the mirror as the object. The image distance and magnification can be calculated using the mirror equation:
1/f = 1/d₀ + 1/dᵢ
where f is the focal length of the mirror, d₀ is the object distance, and dᵢ is the image distance.
The study of images formed by lenses and mirrors is an important topic in geometric optics. It has many applications, including in the design of eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes.

6.6 Interference and Diffraction

Interference and diffraction are two important wave phenomena that occur when light waves interact with each other or with small obstacles.
Interference occurs when two or more light waves overlap and interfere with each other. If the waves are in phase (their peaks and troughs line up), they will constructively interfere, creating a brighter region. If they are out of phase (their peaks and troughs are offset), they will destructively interfere, creating a darker region. Interference patterns can be observed when light waves pass through a narrow slit, forming a diffraction pattern, or when they reflect off a thin film or surface, creating interference fringes.
Diffraction occurs when a wave encounters an obstacle or aperture that is comparable in size to the wavelength of the wave. The wave bends and spreads out around the obstacle, creating a diffraction pattern. The shape of the diffraction pattern depends on the size and shape of the obstacle or aperture and the wavelength of the wave. Diffraction patterns can be observed when light waves pass through a small aperture or around the edges of an obstacle, creating a pattern of bright and dark fringes.
Interference and diffraction are important phenomena in physical optics and have many practical applications. For example, they are used in the design of optical gratings, holograms, and interferometers. Interference and diffraction also play a role in the formation of rainbows, halos, and other optical phenomena in nature.
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