Science Poetry

Seeing the Light

“The nature of light defined, namely:
A difficult task at hand, plainly;
A defining question
Throughout STEM progression.  
Now: wave and a particle, samely.”

The 17 April 2022 Twitter limerick provided a massively abridged overview of the scientific study of light.    

“The nature of light defined, namely:
A difficult task at hand, plainly…”

Light has been a phenomenon of keen interest for observers throughout history.  Encyclopedia entries provide sweeping overviews of investigations from around the world, through millennia of history.    

“A defining question /
Throughout STEM progression.”

The past few centuries of scientific history (“STEM progression”) include several famous experiments that have been used to explore the nature of light. Some experiments have supported the concept of light’s wave behavior; others, light’s particle behavior.      

“Now: wave and a particle, samely.”

At the turn of the 20th century, multiple scientists’ discoveries ultimately led to the theory of wave-particle duality for the nature of light.  In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the existence of the “light quantum” (ultimately termed “photon”): the tiniest particle of light allowed, which could also be observed to act as a wave.  

Wave-particle duality is the name of the theory used today to describe light’s nature.  Light is best understood via the models of quantum mechanics, which also means its behavior is impossible to fully assess with classical-mechanical metaphors and vocabulary (i.e., those models in which a particle OR a wave would be the better choice).  

Einstein eloquently wrote: “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.” 

Thus, the two viewpoints (wave AND particle) are considered “samely,” and the mathematical treatment chosen to model light’s behavior in a given situation is whichever will better fit.