IB Physics/Electromagnetic waves

G.1 The nature of EM waves and light sourcesEdit

G.1.1 Outline the nature of electromagnetic (EM) wavesEdit

Light is an EM wave. The speed of light is independent of the velocity of the source of the light.

Electromagnetic waves consist of oscillating magnetic and electric fields that are at 90 degrees to each other and in phase. This can be visualised as two transverse waves perpendicular to each other, propagating in the same direction.

G.1.2 Describe the different regions of the electromagnetic spectrumEdit


Most importantly is visible light from roughly 400-700 nanometres

G.1.3 Describe what is meant by the dispersion of EM wavesEdit

The splitting of white light into its component colours when it passes from one medium to the other because different media have different refractive indices is called dispersion (as shown below). Red has the greatest wavelength therefore it has the lowest frequency, in comparison to blue light which has a short wavelength and a high frequency.  

G.1.4 Describe the dispersion of EM waves in terms of the dependence of refractive index on wavelengthEdit

In the example above, red is diffracted the least, while violet the most. This is because the waves of lower frequency (i.e. red) are diffracted less (have a lower refractive index).

Dispersion can occur throughout the EM spectrum not just for light.

G.1.5 Distinguish between transmission, absorption and scattering of radiationEdit

Consider an EM wave going through a medium:


By common sense:

  • the wave is transmitted if it goes straight through
  • the wave is absorbed if the substances in the medium (e.g. molecules in air) absorb its energy. This energy can be re-emitted.
  • the wave is scattered if it bounces of particles in the medium into random directions.

Waves can be partially transmitted/absorbed/scattered.

G.1.6 Discuss examples of the transmission, absorption and scattering of EM radiationEdit

The most common example is; Why is the sky blue and sunsets red?

  • During the day: blue light is scattered by small dust particles in the atmosphere. If there was no atmosphere, the sky would be black.
  • During sunsets: the light must travel through more atmosphere. Blue light is scattered more than red light (because it has a shorter wavelength) so the blue light is scattered too much before it reaches you, therefore we only see the red light.

Other examples include; UV light being absorbed by the ozone layer and infra-red radiation being absorbed by greenhouse gases (causing global warming).


G.1.7 Explain the terms monochromatic and coherentEdit

Monochromatic (mono=one, chromatic=colour) light is of a small range of wavelengths, for example from 500-501 nm. Light bulbs are NOT monochromatic as white light is a mixture of many different frequencies.

Coherent light means the waves are linked together, that is all the photons emitted are in phase with one another.

G.1.8 Identify laser light as a source of coherent lightEdit

"Laser light is a source of coherent light".

G.1.9 Outline the mechanism for the production of laser lightEdit

Laser stands for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation".

Stimulated emission, refers to a process where 'electrons that are in an excited state' emit photons and drop to a lower state. This is caused by another photon passing by the excited electron (giving a total of two photons). By nature, both photons are of the same wavelength and are in phase (explanation is not required).

Lasers work by pumping lots of energy into the laser such that over 50% of the electrons in a medium are in an excited state. It then has two mirrors, one of which lets 1% of photons through (this is the light we see).

Search for an animation on the internet to explain this properly.

G.1.10 Outline an application of the use of a laserEdit

Choose one of the following:

  • medical applications (laser surgery)
  • communications
  • technology (bar-code scanners, laser disks)
  • industry (surveying, welding and machining metals, drilling tiny holes in metals)
  • production of CDs
  • reading and writing CDs, DVDs, etc.

G2 Optical InstrumentsEdit

G.2.1 Define the terms principal axis, focal point, focal length and linear magnification as applied to a converging (convex) lensEdit

Principal Axis: is a straight line that goes through the centre of the lens at right angles to lens surface.

Focal Point: the point on the principal axis through which a ray parallel to the principal axis passes through after refraction in the lens.

Focal Length: The distance of the focal point of a lens from the centre of the lens

Linear Magnification (m):is the ratio between the size (height) of the image (hi) and the size (height)of the object (ho). It has no units.



G.2.2 Define the power of a convex lens and the dioptreEdit

The power of a lens is a measure of how much light is bent by it. The power of the lens (P) is defined in terms of the focal length of the lens (f):


The unit for the power of a lens is m -1 or dioptres (dpt)

G.2.3 Define linear magnificationEdit

Linear magnification (m) is defined as the ratio of the height of the image hi to the height of the object ho:


G.2.5 Distinguish between a real image and a virtual imageEdit

A real image is formed when light rays actually coverge (come together) in a point. Can be projected.

A virtual image is formed by light rays which appear to converge from a point. Cannot be projected on a screen.

G.2.6 Apply the convention "real is positive, virtual is negative" to the thin lens formulaEdit

G.2.7 solve problems for a single convex lens using the thin lens formulaEdit

The simple magnifying glassEdit

G.2.8 Define the terms far point and near point for the unaided eyeEdit

For the normal eye, the far point may be assumed to be at infinity and the near point is conventionally taken as being a point 25 cm from the eye.

Near point - Distance between the eye and the nearest object that can be brought comfortably into focus. “least distance of distinct vision”

Far point Distance between the eye and the furthest object that can be brought into focus.

G.2.9 Define angular magnificationEdit

Angular magnification is the ratio between the angle subtended when looking at an object through a lens, and the angle subtended when looking at the object using the naked eye.

G.2.10 Derive an expression for the angular magnification of a simple magnifying glass formed at the near point and at infinityEdit

The compound microscope and astronomical telescopeEdit

G.2.11 Construct a ray diagram for a compound microscope with final image formed close to the near point of the eye (normal adjustment)Edit

G.2.12 Construct a ray diagram for an astronomical telescope with the final image at infinity (normal adjustment)Edit

G.2.13 State the equation relating angular magnification to the focal lengths to lenses in an astronomical telescope in normal adjustmentEdit

G.2.14 Solve problems involving the compound and the astronomical telescopeEdit


G.2.15 Explain the meaning of spherical aberrations and of chromatic aberration as produced by a single lensEdit

You are expected to know of two types of optical aberrations, chromatic and spherical.

Chromatic aberrations are caused by the fact that different wavelengths of light are refracted different amounts by the glass in the lens which after all has a different density than air. This can be counteracted by using several lenses after each other that have different refractive indexes to effectively "bend the color back".

Spherical aberrations on the other hand are a result of that no lenses are perfectly spherical. Thus the light incident on the outer portions of the lens will be bent more than the light incident more in the center. To prevent this an aperture may be used to prevent light from hitting the outer portions of the lens.

A diagram showing chromatic aberration
A diagram showing spherical aberration

G.2.16 Describe how spherical aberration in a lens may be reducedEdit

Spherical aberration in a lens may be reduced by:

  • Shutting off the light near the edge of a lens (use an aperture).
  • Grind the curvature.
  • Use a combination of lenses. (eg. Use two lenses instead of one thicker one).

G.2.17 Describe how chromatic aberration in a lens may be reducedEdit

Chromatic aberration in a lens may be reduced by:

  • Using a combination of convex and concave lenses (a compound lens).

G3 Two-source interference of wavesEdit

G.3.1 State the conditions necessary to observe interference between two sourcesEdit

In order for two light sources to create an observable interference pattern, the light from the two sources must be coherent.

G.3.2 Explain, by means of the principle of superposition, the interference pattern produced by waves from two coherent point sourcesEdit

G.3.3 Outline a double-slit experiment for light and draw the intensity distribution of the observed fringe patternEdit

Young's double slit experiment

G.3.4 Solve problems involving two-source interferenceEdit

G4 Diffraction gratingEdit

G.4.1 Describe the effect on the double-slit intensity distribution of increasing the number of slits.

G.4.2 Derive the diffraction grating formula for normal incidence.

G.4.3 Outline the use of a diffraction grating to measure wavelengths.

G.4.4 Solve problems involving a diffraction grating.

G5 X-raysEdit

G.5.1 Outline the experimental arrangement for the production of X-rays

G.5.2 Draw and annotate a typical X-ray spectrum

G.5.3 Explain the origins of the features of a characteristic X-ray spectrum

G.5.4 Solve problems involving accelerating potential difference and minimum wavelength

G.5.5 Explain how X-ray diffraction arises from the scattering of X-rays in a crystal.

G.5.6 Derive the Bragg scattering equation

G.5.7 Outline how cubic crystals may be used to measure the wavelength of X-rays

G.5.8 Outline how X-rays may be used to determine the structure of crystals.

G.5.9 Solve problems involving the Bragg equation

G6 Thin-film interferenceEdit

G.6.1 Explain the production of interference fringes by a thin air wedge

G.6.2 Explain how wedge fringes can be used to measure very small separations

G.6.3 Describe how thin-film interference is used to test optical flats

G.6.4 Solve problems involving wedge films

G.6.5 State the condition for light to undergo either a phase change of π, or no phase change, on reflection from an interface.

G.6.6 Describe how a source of light gives rise to an interference pattern when the light is reflected at both surfaces of a parallel film

G.6.7 State the conditions for constructive and destructive interference

Conditions for constructive interference:

  1. The waves must have the same wavelength and the same frequency.
  2. The waves must be in phase

Conditions for destructive interference:

  1. The waves must have the same wavelength and the same frequency.
  2. The waves must be out of phase

G.6.8 Explain the formation of coloured fringes when white light is reflected from thin films, such as oil and soap films

G.6.9 Describe the difference between fringes formed by a parallel film and a wedge film

G.6.10 Describe applications of parallel thin films

G.6.11 Solve problems involving parallel films