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M. Fraunhofer found that their number extends to nearly six hundred, but they are much more numerous. There are bright lines in the solar spectrum which also maintain a fixed position. Among the dark lines, M. Fraunhofer selected seven of the most remarkable, and determined their distances so accurately, that they now form standard and invariable points of reference for measuring the refractive powers of different media on the rays of light, which renders this department of optics as exact as any of the physical sciences. These lines are designated by the letters of the alphabet, beginning with B, which is in the red near the end of the spectrum; c is farther advanced in the red; D is in the orange; E in the green; F in the blue; & in the indigo; and Hin the violet. By means of these fixed points, M. Fraunhofer has ascertained from prismatic observation the refrangibility of seven of the principal rays in each of ten different substances solid and liquid. The refraction increased in all from the red to the violet end of the spectrum. The rays that are wanting in the solar spectrum, which occasion the dark lines, were supposed to be absorbed by the atmosphere of the sun. But the annular eclipse which happened on the 15th of May, 1836, afforded Professor Forbes the means of proving that the dark lines in question cannot be attributed to the absorption of the solar atmosphere; they were neither broader nor more numerous in the spectrum formed during that phenomenon than at any other time, though the rays came only from the circumference of the sun's disc, and consequently had to traverse a greater depth of his atmosphere.
Sir David Brewster found that in certain states of the atmosphere the obscure lines become much broader, and some of them deeply black; and he observed also, that, at the time the sun was setting in a veil of red light, part of the luminous spectrum was absorbed, whence he concluded that the earth's atmosphere had absorbed the rays of light which occupied the dark bands. By direct experiments also the atmosphere was observed to act powerfully upon the rayless lines.
When a lens is used along with a prism, longitudinal dark lines of different breadths are seen to cross the bands, already described, at right angles; these M. Ragona-Scina and M. Babinet believe to be lines of interference which exist in light that has passed through a convex lens.
The lines are different both in kind and number in the spectra
of gases and flames. In a highly-magnified spectrum from light passed through nitrous acid gas, Sir David Brewster counted 2000 dark bands. In the spectrum of a lamp, and generally of all white flames, none of the defective lines are found; so all such flames contain rays which do not exist in the light of the sun or stars. Brilliant red lines appear in the spectrum produced by the combustion of nitre upon charcoal; and in all artificial flames dark and bright bands exist, sometimes corresponding in position with those in the solar spectrum, and sometimes not.
A sunbeam received on a screen, after passing through a small round hole in a window-shutter, appears like a round white spot; but when a prism is interposed, the beam no longer occupies the same space. It is separated into the prismatic colours, and spread over a line of considerable length, while its breadth remains the same with that of the white spot. The act of spreading or separation is called the dispersion of the coloured rays. Dispersion always takes place in the plane of refraction, and is greater as the angle of incidence is greater. It varies inversely as the length of a wave of light, and directly as its velocity : hence towards the blue end of the spectrum, where the undulations of the rays are least, the dispersion is greatest. Substances have very different dispersive powers; that is to say, the spectra formed by two equal prisms of different substances, under precisely the same circumstances, are of different lengths. Thus, if a prism of flint-glass and one of crown-glass of equal refracting angles be presented to two rays of white light at equal angles, it will be found that the space over which the coloured rays are dispersed by the flint-glass is much greater than the space occupied by that produced by the crown-glass: and as the quantity of dispersion depends upon the refracting angle of the prism, the angles of the two prisms may be made such that, when the prisms are placed close together with their edges turned opposite ways, they will exactly oppose each other's action, and will refract the coloured rays equally, but in contrary directions, so that an exact compensation will be effected, and the light will be refracted without colour (N. 195). The achromatic telescope is constructed on this principle. It consists of a tube with an object-glass or lens at one end to bring the rays to a focus, and form an image of the distant object, and a magnifying-glass at
the other end to view the image thus formed. Now it is found that the object-glass, instead of making the rays converge to one point, disperses them, and gives a confused and coloured image: but by constructing it of two lenses in contact, one of flint and the other of crown-glass of certain forms and proportions, the dispersion is counteracted, and a perfectly well-defined and colourless image of the object is formed (N. 196). It was thought to be impossible to produce refraction without colour, till Mr. Hall, a gentleman of Worcestershire, constructed a telescope on this principle in the year 1733; and twenty-five years afterwards the achromatic telescope was brought to perfection by Mr. Dollond, a celebrated optician in London.
By means of Mr. Fraunhofer's determination of the refraction of the principal rays in substances, their dispersive powers may be found (N. 197).
A perfectly homogeneous colour is very rarely to be found; but the tints of all substances are most brilliant when viewed in light of their own colour. The red of a wafer is much more vivid in red than in white light; whereas, if placed in homogeneous yellow light, it can no longer appear red, because there is not a ray of red in the yellow light. Were it not that the wafer, like all other bodies, whether coloured or not, reflects white light at its outer surface, it would appear absolutely black when placed in yellow light.
After looking steadily for a short time at a coloured object, such as a red wafer, on turning the eyes to a white substance, a green image of the wafer appears, which is called the accidental colour of red. All tints have their accidental colours: thus the accidental colour of orange is blue; that of yellow is indigo; of green, reddish white; of blue, orange-red; of violet, yellow; and of white, black; and vice versa. When the direct and accidental colours are of the same intensity, the accidental is then called the complementary colour, because any two colours are said to be complementary to one another which produce white when combined.
From experiments by M. Plateau of Brussels, it appears that two complementary colours from direct impression, which would produce white when combined, produce black, or extinguish one another, by their union, when accidental; and also that the combination of all the tints of the solar spectrum produces white
light if they be from a direct impression on the eye, whereas blackness results from a union of the same tints if they be accidental; and in every case where the real colours produce white by their combination, the accidental colours of the same tints produce black. When the image of an object is impressed on the retina only for a few moments, the picture left is exactly of the same colour with the object, but in an extremely short time the picture is succeeded by the accidental image. M. Plateau attributes this phenomenon to a reaction of the retina after being excited by direct vision, so that the accidental impression is of an opposite nature to the corresponding direct impression. He conceives that when the eye is excited by being fixed for a time on a coloured object, and then withdrawn from the excitement, it endeavours to return to its state of repose; but in so doing, that it passes this point, and spontaneously assumes an opposite condition, like a spring which, bent in one direction, in returning to its state of rest bends as much the contrary way. The accidental image thus results from a particular modification of the organ of sight, in virtue of which it spontaneously gives us a new sensation after it has been excited by direct vision. If the prevailing impression be a very strong white light, its accidental image is not black, but a variety of colours in succession. According to M. Plateau, the retina offers a resistance to the action of light, which increases with the duration of this action; whence, after looking intently at an object for a long time, it appears to decrease in brilliancy. The imagination has a powerful influence on our optical impressions, and has been known to revive the images of highly luminous objects months, and even years, afterwards.
Interference of Light - Undulatory Theory of Light - Propagation of Light Newton's Rings - Measurement of the Length of the Waves of Light, and of the Frequency of the Vibrations of Ether for each Colour Newton's Scale of Colours Diffraction of Light - Sir John Herschel's Theory of the Absorption of Light Refraction and Reflection of Light.
NEWTON and most of his immediate successors imagined light to be a material substance, emitted by all self-luminous bodies in extremely minute particles, moving in straight lines with prodigious velocity, which, by impinging upon the optic nerves, produce the sensation of light. Many of the observed phenomena have been explained by this theory; it is, however, totally inadequate to account for the following circumstances.
When two equal rays of red light, proceeding from two luminous points, fall upon a sheet of white paper in a dark room, they produce a red spot on it which will be twice as bright as either ray would produce singly, provided the difference in the lengths of the two beams, from the luminous points to the red spot on the paper, be exactly the 0.0000258th part of an inch. The same effect will take place if the difference in the lengths be twice, three times, four times, &c., that quantity. But if the difference in the lengths of the two rays be equal to one-half of the 0.0000258th part of an inch, or to its 1, 2, 3, &c., part, the one light will entirely extinguish the other, and will produce absolute darkness on the paper where the united beams fall. If the difference in the lengths of their paths be equal to the 14, 24, 34, &c., of the 0.0000258th part of an inch, the red spot arising from the combined beams will be of the same intensity which one alone would produce. If violet light be employed, the difference in the lengths of the two beams must be equal to the 0-0000157th part of an inch, in order to produce the same phenomena; and for the other colours, the difference must be intermediate between the 0.0000258th and the 0-0000157th part of an inch.