What is Scattering? - Definition & Examples

What is Scattering? - Definition & Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

In physics, it's rare for wave energy to travel in a completely straight line. Several processes can occur that make the wave depart from its path. This lesson will cover one of those processes, scattering, and give a few examples of it in action.

Introduction and Definition of Scattering

If you ask a first-grade student what's in air, the answer will probably be one word: nothing. The idea that air is full of particles, chemicals, and various gases is not an easy one to understand. When you take a breath of air, it is not a breath of nothing (thankfully!). So, when certain forms of energy pass through air, their path is sometimes shifted, and they travel in a direction that is unexpected. Of course, we could be talking about any media--air, water, solid rock--but air is an easy one to wrap our minds around.

When energy waves (such as light, sound, and various electromagnetic waves) are caused to depart from a straight path due to imperfections in the medium, it is called scattering. Scattering is unique in that the wave energy is generally deflected in multiple directions that are difficult to predict or calculate. A great example of basic scattering is to think of the sun shining on you through a thin cover of clouds. Instead of hitting you directly, the sun's light is weakened. This is because as the sun shines through the clouds, its light is scattered and only some of it ends up striking you.

Of course, scattering is not limited to light. Scattering can happen to many types of energy waves and is more pronounced in certain media.

Examples of Scattering

Of course, the best example of scattering is light being deflected as it passes through air that is filled with particles of some sort. The sun passing through clouds is a great way to think about this. Scattering can happen in other instances, though, and some are very important for scientists to understand.

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