1690 – Holland



‘Every point on a wavefront can act as a new source of waves’

A line perpendicular to the wave fronts is called a ray and this ray shows the direction of the wave.

The Huygens construction, published in ‘Traite de la Lumiere‘ (’Treatise on Light’, 1690) gives an explanation for the way light is reflected and refracted.

Huygens said that light consists of a disturbance spreading from its source as spherical pressure waves having wave fronts perpendicular to the direction of their motion and correctly anticipated that in a denser medium light would travel more slowly. This hypothesis was largely ignored at the time as it conflicted with NEWTON‘s theory. Huygens’ view, when re-discovered and championed by THOMAS YOUNG (1773-1829) would eventually become the more commonly accepted version.

He invented a pendulum clock (1656) and also discovered Titan, the first observed moon of Saturn (1665).

Saturn's moon Titan. Notable Features - Relatively smooth surface with almost no craters; Color variation across the planet (previously thought to be seas of methane, but that has been disproved. True origin has not been discovered.) At least one lake of liquid ethane is on the surface at the present time

Huygens discovered that a simple pendulum does not keep perfect time but completes smaller swings faster than big swings. This is because the weight or ‘bob’ of the pendulum follows a circular path. Huygens’ realisation that a pendulum mimicking a circle’s curve does not maintain a perfectly equal swing and that in order to do this it actually needs to follow a ‘cycloidal’ arc, set him on the path to designing the first successful pendulum clock.

Published ‘Horologium‘ (1658), ‘Horologium Oscillatorium‘ (1673) in which he showed that if the bob’s path were a cycloid (the curved path traced out by a point on the rim of a wheel as it rolls along) instead of a circle, it would be isynchronous (keeping equal time) no matter what the length of the swing. He made the pendulum’s swing cycloidal by suspending a rigid pendulum rod on two chords whose swing either way was limited by two plates called cycloidal checks.

GALILEO had considered the timekeeping possibilities of a swinging pendulum and Huygens successfully tied it with an escapement mechanism.
He explored the mathematics associated with pendulums – which led him, together with HOOKE, to an early prediction of the link between the elliptical orbits of the planets and the inverse square law of gravity. His work was a milestone, playing a key part in the understanding of centrifugal force. It helped to confirm Newton’s laws of motion by showing how an object will travel in a straight line unless pulled into a curved path by some other force.

Huygens was one of the founders of the French Académie des sciences in Paris.

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THOMAS YOUNG (1773-1829)

1801 – England

‘Interference between waves can be constructive or destructive’

Huygens‘ wave theory was neglected for more than a hundred years until it was revived by Young in the opening years of the nineteenth century. Young rejected Newton‘s view that if light consisted of waves it would not travel in a straight line and therefore sharp shadows would not be possible. He said that if the wavelength of light was extremely small, light would not spread around corners and shadows would appear sharp. His principle of interference provided strong evidence in support of the wave theory.

Young’s principle advanced the wave theory of light of CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS. Further advances came from EINSTEIN and PLANCK.

In Young’s double slit experiment a beam of sunlight is allowed to enter a darkened room through a pinhole. The beam is then passed through two closely spaced small slits in a cardboard screen. You would expect to see two bright lights on a screen placed behind the slits. Instead a series of alternate light and dark stripes are observed, known as interference fringes, produced when one wave of light interferes with another wave of light.

Two identical waves traveling together either reinforce each other (constructive interference) or cancel each other out (destructive interference). This effect is similar to the pattern produced when two stones are thrown into a pool of water.

portrait of THOMAS YOUNG ©


The mathematical explanation of this effect was provided by AUGUSTIN FRESNEL (1788-1827). The wave theory was further expanded by EINSTEIN in 1905 when he showed that light is transmitted as photons.

Light, an electromagnetic radiation, is transported in photons that are guided along their path by waves. This is known as ‘wave-particle duality’.

The current view of the nature of light is based on quantum theory.

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1831 – England

‘A changing magnetic field around a conductor produces an electric current in the conductor. The size of the voltage is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field’

portrait drawing of MICHAEL FARADAY English chemist and physicist (British Library) (1791-1867)

This phenomenon is called ‘electromagnetic induction’ and the current produced ‘induced current’. Induction is the basis of the electric generator and motor.

Faraday developed HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED’s 1820 discovery that electric current could deflect a compass needle. In his experiment Faraday wrapped two coils of insulated wire around opposite sides of an iron ring. One coil was connected to a battery, the other to a wire under which lay a magnetic compass needle. He anticipated that if he passed a current through the first wire it would establish a field in the ring that would induce a current in the second wire. He observed no effect when the current was steady but when he turned the current on and off he noticed the needle moving. He surmised that whenever the current in the first coil changed, current was induced in the second. To test this concept he slipped a magnet in and out of a coil of wire. While the magnet was moving the compass needle registered a current, as he pushed it in it moved one way, as he pulled it out the needle moved in the opposite direction. This was the first production of electricity by non-chemical means.

In 1831, by rotating a copper disc between the poles of a magnet, Faraday was able to produce a steady electric current. This was the world’s first dynamo.

NEWTON, with his concept of gravity, had introduced the idea of an invisible force that exerted its effect through empty space, but the idea of ‘action-at-a-distance’ was rejected by an increasing number of scientists in the early nineteenth century. By 1830, THOMAS YOUNG and AUGUSTIN FRESNEL had shown that light did not travel as particles, as Newton had said, but as waves or vibrations. But if this was so, what was vibrating? To answer this, scientists came up with the idea of a weightless matter, or ‘aether’.

Faraday had rejected the concept of electricity as a ‘fluid’ and instead visualised its ‘fields’ with lines of force at their edges – the lines of force demonstrated by the pattern of iron fillings around a magnet. This meant that action at a distance simply did not happen, but things moved only when they encountered these lines of force. He believed that magnetism was also induced by fields of force and that it could interrelate with electricity because the respective fields cut across each other. Proving this to be true by producing an electric current via magnetism, Faraday had demonstrated electromagnetic induction.

When Faraday was discovering electromagnetic induction he did so in the guise of a natural philosopher. Physics, as a branch of science, was yet to be given a name.

The Russian physicist HEINRICH LENZ (1804- 65) extended Faraday’s work when in 1833 he suggested that ‘the changing magnetic field surrounding a conductor gives rise to an electric current whose own magnetic field tends to oppose it.’ This is now known as Lenz’s law. This law is in fact LE CHATELIER‘s principle when applied to the interactions of currents and magnetic fields.


Fluctuating Electromagnetic Fields and EM Waves

It took a Scottish mathematician by the name of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL to provide a mathematical interpretation of Faraday’s work on electromagnetism.

Describing the complex interplay of electric and magnetic fields, he was able to conclude mathematically that electromagnetic waves move at the speed of light and that light is just one form of electromagnetic wave.
This led to the understanding of light and radiant heat as moving variations in electromagnetic fields. These moving fields have become known collectively as radiation.

Faraday continued to investigate the idea that the natural forces of electricity, magnetism, light and even gravity are somehow ‘united’, and to develop the idea of fields of force. He focused on how light and gravity relate to electromagnetism.
After conducting experiments using transparent substances, he tried a piece of heavy lead glass, which led to the discovery of the ‘Faraday Effect’ in 1845 and proved that polarised light may be affected by a magnet. This opened the way for enquiries into the complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

In 1888 the German physicist HEINRICH HERTZ confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves – in this case radio waves – traveling at the speed of light.

The unit of capacitance, farad (F) is named in honour of Faraday.

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Faraday Lecture -‘The chemical history of a candle’
Faraday as a discoverer

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1842 – Austria

‘Any source of sound or light moving away from an observer changes in frequency with reference to the observer’

photograph of a metal plaque celebrating Christan_Doppler ©

The pitch of the whistle of a train is higher when the train is approaching an observer standing on a platform and lower when it is moving away from the observer.

Doppler explained the effect by pointing out that when the source of sound is moving toward the observer, sound waves reach the ear at shorter intervals, hence the higher pitch. When the source is moving away the waves reach the ear at longer intervals, hence the lower pitch. The Doppler effect also occurs when the source of sound is stationary and the observer is moving.

Doppler predicted that a similar effect would apply to light waves.

diagram demonstrating the Doppler effect

Different colours are the optical equivalent of notes of different pitch; blue light vibrates at roughly twice the pitch of red light.

In 1929 EDWIN HUBBLE suggested that the Doppler effect applied to light coming from distant stars gives a measure of the distance and speed of distant galaxies.

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1905 – Switzerland

  1. ‘the relativity principle: All laws of science are the same in all frames of reference.
  2. constancy of the speed of light: The speed of light in a vacuüm is constant and is independent of the speed of the observer’
photo portrait of Albert Einstein &copy:


The laws of physics are identical to different spectators, regardless of their position, as long as they are moving at a constant speed in relation to each other. Above all the speed of light is constant. Classical laws of mechanics seem to be obeyed in our normal lives because the speeds involved are insignificant.

Newton’s recipe for measuring the speed of a body moving through space involved simply timing it as it passed between two fixed points. This is based on the assumptions that time is flowing at the same rate for everyone – that there is such a thing as ‘absolute’ time, and that two observers would always agree on the distance between any two points in space.
The implications of this principle if the observers are moving at different speeds are bizarre and normal indicators of velocity such as distance and time become warped. Absolute space and time do not exist. The faster an object is moving the slower time moves. Objects appear to become shorter in the direction of travel. Mass increases as the speed of an object increases. Ultimately nothing may move faster than or equal to the speed of light because at that point it would have infinite mass, no length and time would stand still.

‘The energy (E) of a body equals its mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared’

This equation shows that mass and energy are mutually convertible under certain conditions.

The mass-energy equation is a consequence of Einstein’s theory of special relativity and declares that only a small amount of atomic mass could unleash huge amounts of energy.

Two of his early papers described Brownian motion and the ‘photoelectric’ effect (employing PLANCK’s quantum theory and helping to confirm Planck’s ideas in the process).

1915 – Germany

‘Objects do not attract each other by exerting pull, but the presence of matter in space causes space to curve in such a manner that a gravitational field is set up. Gravity is the property of space itself’

From 1907 to 1915 Einstein developed his special theory into a general theory that included equating accelerating forces and gravitational forces. This implies light rays would be bent by gravitational attraction and electromagnetic radiation wavelengths would be increased under gravity. Moreover, mass and the resultant gravity, warps space and time, which would otherwise be ‘flat’, into curved paths that other masses (e.g. the moons of planets) caught within the field of the distortion follow. The predictions from special and general relativity were gradually proven by experimental evidence.

Einstein spent much of the rest of his life trying to devise a unified theory of electromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear fields.

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LOUIS DE BROGLIE (1892-1987)

1924 – France

‘The wave-particle duality of matter.
Like photons, particles such as electrons also show wave-particle duality, that is, they also behave like light waves’

Einstein had suggested in one of his 1905 papers that the ‘photoelectric’ effect could be explained by an interpretation that included electromagnetic waves behaving like particles. De Broglie simply reversed the argument and asked: ‘if waves can behave like particles (a stream of quanta or photons), why should particles not behave like waves?’

Louis de Broglie (1892-1987), French physicist. De Broglie was instrumental in showing that waves and particles can behave like each other at a quantum level (wave-particle duality). He suggested that particles, such as electrons, could behave as waves. This was confirmed by Davisson and Germer in 1927. He was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work.


By applying quantum theory de Broglie was able to show that an electron could act as if it were a wave with its wavelength calculated by dividing PLANCK‘s constant by the electron’s momentum at any given instant. His proposal was found to be plausible by experimental evidence shortly afterwards.

BORN, SCHRODINGER and HEISENBERG offered arguments to the debate. NIELS BOHR provided some context in 1927 by pointing out that the equipment used in experiments to prove the case one way or another greatly influenced the outcome of the results. A principle of ‘complementarity’ had to be applied suggesting the experimental proof to be a series of partially correct answers, which have to be interpreted side by side for the most complete picture. Uncertainty and Complementarity together became known as the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics.

Eventually, the ‘probabilistic’ theories of Heisenberg and Born largely won out. At this juncture, cause and effect had logically been removed from atomic physics and de Broglie, like Einstein and Schrödinger, began to question the direction quantum theory was taking and rejected many of its findings.

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