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All waves are subject to diffraction when they encounter an obstacle in their path. Consider the shadow of a flagpole cast by the Sun on the ground. From a distance the darkened zone of the shadow gives the impression that light traveling in a straight line from the Sun was blocked by the pole. But careful observation of the shadow's edge will reveal that the change from dark to light is not abrupt. Instead, there is a gray area along the edge that was created by light that was "bent" or diffracted at the side of the pole.

When a source of waves, such as a light bulb, sends a beam through an opening or aperture, a diffraction pattern will appear on a screen placed behind the aperture. The diffraction pattern will look something like the aperture (a slit, circle, square) but it will be surrounded by some diffracted waves that give it a "fuzzy" appearance.

If both the source and the screen are far from the aperture the amount of "fuzziness" is determined by the wavelength of the source and the size of the aperture. With a large aperture most of the beam will pass straight through, with only the edges of the aperture causing diffraction, and there will be less "fuzziness." But if the size of the aperture is comparable to the wavelength, the diffraction pattern will widen. For example, an open window can cause sound waves to be diffracted through large angles.

Fresnel diffraction refers to the case when either the source or the screen are close to the aperture. When both source and screen are far from the aperture, the term Fraunhofer diffraction is used. As an example of the latter, consider starlight entering a telescope. The diffraction pattern of the telescope's circular mirror or lens is known as Airy's disk, which is seen as a bright central disk in the middle of a number of fainter rings. This indicates that the image of a star will always be widened by diffraction. When optical instruments such as telescopes have no defects, the greatest detail they can observe is said to be diffraction limited.

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