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When comparing two light sources, for example, a light bulb at 20W and a light bulb at 100W, what is it about the incoming light that makes the latter look brighter than the former? Are there different reasons why different light sources looks different in brightness (High five for cramming three instances of "different" in the same sentence)? For example, in this thread, it is stated that the human eye is most sensitive around 555nm, something that I guess translates to meaning that given a light of the same intensity (whatever that means, hence my question), it is going to be perceived as most bright when hitting 555nm. Does this question have different answers depending on if you're seeing light as a particle vs a wave?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

The 100 W light bulb dissipates more energy per second (1 watt = 1 joule per second) than the 20 W light bulb, and consequently the light emanating from the 100 W bulb carries more energy than the light emanating from the 20 W bulb.

In the picture of light as an electromagnetic wave, the energy carried by the light is proportional to the square of the wave's amplitude. The technical term for this energy is "Poynting flux". (In fact we usually take the time-average over one period of oscillation as the definition of the energy in the wave.) In this model, the photo-receptors in your eye are oscillators. What is oscillating? Electric charge. Charges are accelerated in response to the electric field of the light: the greater the electric field (or amplitude), the greater the amplitude of the oscillation, and the greater the electric currents in your eye (and the greater the brightness).

In the picture of light as a particle (a photon), each particle carries with it an amount of energy proportional to its frequency: $E=h\nu$, where $h$ is Planck's constant, and $\nu$ is the frequency of light. The energy flux is then the energy per photon multiplied by the flux of photons (# of photons per unit area per second). So the 100 W bulb emits more photons per second than the 20 W bulb. In this model, the photoreceptors in your eye undergo chemical reactions as a result of absorbing photons. The more photons absorbed per second, the brighter the light appears.

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Brightness is just the number of photons per second hitting your eye - all the other properties of the light are the same.

edit: perceived brightness is the number of 'detected' photons hitting your eye per second!

Different wavelengths of light correspond to different colours. 555nm means light with a wavelength of 555 nano-meters (billions of a meter), this is roughly green light. So all this says is that you eye is most sensitive to green light and so a given number of green photons/second will appear brighter than the same number of red photons. You can see this with laser pointers, for the same power small pointers - green ones look much brighter than red.

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This explanation lacks any sort of physical preciseness. It fails to mention the dual nature of light, for a start. It's not technically wrong, so I won't down-vote though. – Noldorin Nov 13 '11 at 3:31
Couldn't the keepers of this page program an insert to the comment parser field which says something on duality of light? That might be superfluous sometimes, but never wrong :=) – Georg Nov 13 '11 at 7:45
What about the amplitude of the light? Is that just a measure for the amount of photons? – Speldosa Nov 13 '11 at 13:32
Also, doesn't the second paragraph contradict the first one? You show an example where brightness is not governed by the number of photons per second hitting the eye. – Speldosa Nov 13 '11 at 14:37
@Speldosa - there is a difference between the 'actual brightness' measured by some system and the 'perceived brightness' measured by your biased eye – Martin Beckett Nov 13 '11 at 17:37

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