When light reflects from a surface, at least the direction of its momentum changes. Since the total momentum must be conserved, there has to be something going on within the atoms of the surface.

So my question is that does reflected light increase the internal energy of the surface even if it is a really really tiny amount?

P.S. I am not talking about the fraction of light that gets absorbed by the surface. I know the energy of that fraction contributes to the internal energy of the surface. My concern is only about the photons being reflected.

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, this is the principle behind Doppler radar. The frequency/energy increases if the surface is moving towards the source. The frequency/energy decreases if the reflecting surface is moving away from the source.

The only time the frequency/energy will be unchanged is if the surface initially has the opposite momentum of the light.

  • So the frequency of reflected light is less than the incoming light evem if the surface is stationary? – physicsguy19 Oct 21 at 0:54
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    If the surface is stationary then there will be a slight decrease. If the surface has the opposite momentum of the photon then the energy/frequency will be unchanged. I will add this to the answer – Dale Oct 21 at 1:00
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    To clarify, upon reflection from a stationary object, the object recoils, giving it kinetic energy. The photon’s energy then needs to decrease (redshift) in order to account for the kinetic energy. The amount by which the frequency of the photon shifts is the Doppler factor. Thus both energy and momentum are conserved. – Gilbert Oct 21 at 4:34
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    @HolgerFiedler that is incorrect. There is no redshift in the center of momentum frame. If the surface is moving towards the source faster than in the center of momentum frame then there will be blueshift. – Dale Oct 21 at 13:08
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    @ÁrpádSzendrei That is incorrect. Do the math: if the photon keeps its energy in once reference frame, its energy changes in another, since the Lorentz boost acts differently on the photon depending on the direction it is traveling. The photon only keeps its energy during reflection as measured in the center of momentum frame. – Chris Oct 21 at 23:48

A nice explanation was provided in 2014 by Rusian and Gilbert

Does a reflection still transfer momentum to an mirror?

When a photon interacts with an atom, three things can happen:

  1. elastic scattering, the photon keeps its energy and phase, and changes angle, this is the case of a mirror, reflection

  2. inelastic scattering, the photon gives part of its energy to the atom and changes angle, this happens when infrared light transfers kinetic energy to the vibrational motion of molecules (heats up)

  3. absorption, the photon gives all its energy to the atom, and the absorbing electron moves to a higher energy level as per QM

In your case, reflection, is elastic scattering, and this is the only way to keep the energy level of photons, and to build a mirror image.

Of course this is assuming a stationary reflecting surface (relative to the observer), mirror.

As the other answers say, when the reflecting surface is traveling towards or away from the observer, the energy level of the photons can change.

It is very important to talk about specular reflection, like a mirror, where the relative angle of the photons is kept too. And differentiate it form diffuse relfection, where the relative angle of the photons is not kept.

You are asking whether the momentum of the photons can be transferred to the surface. Yes, photons can exert pressure on the surface of the mirror.

Please see here:

Can something without mass exert a force?

  • You misunderstand how elastic scattering works. In elastic scattering the photon’s energy is not necessarily conserved, it is only the total kinetic energy that is conserved. In the case of a stationary mirror, conservation of momentum requires that it accelerate and gain KE. Therefore the photon’s energy is decreased. Elastic scattering does not in any way imply that the photon’s energy must be unchanged – Dale Oct 22 at 0:27

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