How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 626

Exactly what is light? Is it a wave or particles? — MW, Catoosa, OK
Light is an electromagnetic wave—an excitation of the electric and magnetic fields that can exist even in "empty" space. Light's electric field creates its magnetic field and its magnetic field creates its electric field and this self-perpetuating arrangement zips off through space at a phenomenal speed—the speed of light. Light is created by moving electric charges, which first excite the electromagnetic fields. Light is also absorbed by electric charges, which obtain energy from the light's electromagnetic fields.

Like everything else in the universe, light exhibits both wave and particle behaviors. When it is traveling through space, light behaves as a wave. That means that its location is generally not well defined and that it can simultaneously pass through more than one opening (the way a water wave can when it encounters a piece of screening). But when light is emitted or absorbed, it behaves as a particle. It's created all at once when it's emitted from a particular location and it disappears all at once when it's absorbed somewhere else. This wave/particle arrangement is true of everything, including objects such as electrons or atoms: while they are traveling unobserved, they behave as waves but when you go looking for them, they behave as particles.

         

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