How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 341

How does light cancel in destructive interference?
When two identical waves (usually two halves of the same wave) arrive together out of phase, the electric field in one wave (or half-wave) is up at the same moment that the electric field of the other wave (or half-wave) is down. These two electric fields add together and create a total electric field that is neither up nor down. An electric charge at this location in space will experience no forces so there is no electric field (one wave pushes that charge up while the other wave pushes that charge down). With no electric field around, there is no light to be absorbed. If two waves coming toward you interfere destructively, you will see no light. You might worry about conservation of energy; where did the light and its energy go? It went somewhere else. Any time there is destructive interference at one point in space, there will always be some other point in space at which there is constructive interference. Thus when you look at a soap film and see no red light, you can be sure that the red light has gone somewhere else. In the case of the soap film, when you see no red light in the reflection from the film, that red light has been transmitted by the film and is visible on the opposite side of the film.

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