Light & Optics: Real-World Applications

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  • 0:01 Light & Optics
  • 1:08 Bending Light
  • 3:23 Lasers & Fiber Optics
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Light is all around us but how do we actually use it in our daily lives? This lesson will provide you with a brief overview of some real-world applications of light and optics, many of which may surprise you!

Light & Optics

Pop quiz! What is 'light?' Is it:

A) a rainbow
B) radiation
C) the lightbulb in your kitchen or
D) the source of illusions like mirages?

Technically, the answer is all of the above!

Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see with our own eyes, but there is also ultraviolet light that we don't see, as well as other forms like gamma and x-ray waves. There's also 'artificial' light like the lightbulbs in your house and car that you probably don't even give much thought to. But think about it - artificial light hasn't always been a given. In fact, for a long time, people didn't have electricity and had to see in the dark with candles!

Today, we take for granted all the different ways that light impacts our daily lives. But those who study optics, or the science of light, are very interested in how light behaves and how we can use it for our benefit. Because light and optics are all around you, it's good to know how and why they are being used. And with the fun facts you're about to learn, maybe you can surprise your own friends with your new 'enlightened' knowledge!

Bending Light

Light is pretty amazing stuff. First, it exists as both waves and particles. It travels very fast and as you now know, it comes in all different forms. But what's really neat about light is that it can bend. Whether you know it or not, you've already seen this happen, probably thousands of times!

For example, reflection is the act of light bending off of materials. When light encounters a surface it can't travel through, it's bounced off the surface, or reflected. When it hits a smooth surface, it bounces back at the same angle as it hit the material, like with a mirror or the calm surface of a lake.

But when it hits a rough surface, it will reflect or bend back in different angles than it hit the material with, scattering the light all over. Most surfaces are not smooth, so they diffuse the light in this way. How can you tell? Well, if you can see yourself being reflected back on the surface of the object, it's smooth. If you can't see yourself, then it's too rough for such a clean return of these light waves!

We use reflections for many purposes, not just the mirror in your bathroom. Solar mirrors are used to gather solar energy, and microscopes and telescopes use reflection to let us see both very small things that are right in front of us and very large things that look small because they're so far away. Even fiber optic cables utilize the power of reflection to move data at incredibly fast speeds.

Refraction is another way light bends but this time, it bends as it travels through materials instead of bouncing off of them. The light bends because although it can travel through these materials, it slows down considerably and therefore changes course a bit. This one you can try at home: get a straw and stick it in a glass of water. Look at the straw from the side and it looks like it's split in two! There's nothing bent about your straw but rather, the light waves are bent.

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