I understand that light waves cause electrically charged particles in matter to vibrate so that these particles can absorb and reemit light, even in transparent materials. But doesn’t that explanation contradict quantum theory, which states that only specific photons corresponding to allowed electronic transitions can be absorbed? — GS, Akron, OH
When a light wave passes through matter, the charged particles in that matter do respond—the light wave contains an electric field that pushes on electrically charged particles. But how a particular charged particle responds to the light wave depends on the frequency of the light wave and on the quantum states available to the charged particle. While the charged particle will begin to vibrate back and forth at the light wave’s frequency and will begin to take energy from the light wave, the charged particle can only retain this energy permanently if doing so will promote it to another permanent quantum state. Since light energy comes in discrete quanta known as photons and the energy of a photon depends on the light’s frequency, it’s quite possible that the charged particle will be unable to absorb the light permanently. In that case, the charged particle will soon reemit the light.
In effect, the charged particle “plays” with the photon of light, trying to see if it can absorb that photon. As it plays, the charged particle begins to shift into a new quantum state—a “virtual” state. This virtual state may or may not be permanently allowed. If it is, it’s called a real state and the charged particle may remain in it indefinitely. In that case, the charged particle can truly absorb the photon and may never reemit it at all. But if the virtual state turns out not to be a permanently allowed quantum state, the charged particle can’t remain in it long and must quickly return to its original state. In doing so, this charged particle reemits the photon it was playing with. The closer the photon is to one that it can absorb permanently, meaning the closer the virtual quantum state is to one of the real quantum states, the longer the charged particle can play with the photon before recognizing that it must give the photon up.
A colored material is one in which the charged particles can permanently absorb certain photons of visible light. Because this material only absorbs certain photons of light, it separates the components of white light and gives that material a colored appearance.
A transparent material is one in which the charged particles can’t permanently absorb any photons of visible light. While these charged particles all try to absorb the visible light photons, they find that there are no permanent quantum states available to them when they do. Instead, they play with the photons briefly and then let them continue on their way. This playing process slows the light down. In general blue light slows down more than red light in a transparent material because blue light photons contain more energy than red light photons. The charged particles in the transparent material do have real permanent states available to them, but to reach those states, the charged particles would have to absorb high-energy photons of ultraviolet light. While blue photons don’t have as much energy as ultraviolet photons, they have more energy than red photons do. As a result, the charged particles in a transparent material can play with a blue photon longer than they can play with a red photon—the virtual state produced by a blue photon is closer to the real states than is the virtual state produced by a red photon. Because of this effect, the speed at which blue light passes through a transparent material is significantly less than the speed at which red light passes through that material.
Finally, about quantum states: you can think of the real states of one of these charged particles the way you think about the possible pitches of a guitar string. While you can jiggle the guitar string back and forth at any frequency you like with your fingers, it will only vibrate naturally at certain specific frequencies. You can hear these frequencies by plucking the string. If you whistle at the string and choose one of these specific frequencies for your pitch, you can set the string vibrating. In effect, the string is absorbing the sound wave from your whistle. But if you whistle at some other frequency, the string will only play briefly with your sound wave and then send it on its way. The string playing with your sound waves is just like a charged particle in a transparent material playing with a light wave. The physics of these two situations is remarkably similar.