# What actually is white light?

I was studying spectra and suddenly a question popped up relating to the absorption spectra. When we say that the electron absorbs certain wavelengths(photons) so we are implying that white light is a collection of infinite photons of many many wavelengths and the electron simply eats it.

My question is what exactly is white light and how is it different from the monochromatic ones. Is it a bag of infinite photons of different wavelengths or is it a single photon? If it is a single photon then how can electron take up a photon from single photon and still the photon continues with other wavelengths?

• Jan 8, 2021 at 18:01

There is some confusion of terms in the question.

1. A photon is an elementary particle in the standard model of particle physics, see table. Its mass is equal to zero, it is a point particle, and its energy is equal to $$h*ν$$, where $$h$$ is planck's constant, $$ν$$ is the frequency for the classical electromagnetic wave, light, that emerges from a large number of such photons. As far as the photon is concerned the term "frequency" has no meaning other to identify its energy.

2. the electron is also a point particle in the same table with a fixed invariant mass of 0.51099895 MeV, which is invariant. In no way a free electron can absorb a photon, a photon can scatter off an electron, its energy becoming less. Absorption of photons can only happen in scatters of photons with bound electrons in energy levels, in atoms, molecules and lattices . It is the whole atom that absorbs the photon, the electron changing energy levels due to the absorption. The energy levels have a width, and that is reflected in the ability of atoms to absorb photons with a $$Δ(E)$$ in energy, which width is directly related to the frequency of the light of multitudes of photons.

3. The colors of the spectrum are not one to one with the colors our eyes have defined. The spectrum from a crystal have specific frequencies that we have named with the color we see, and there, there is a one to one correspondence, frequency to color. Note there is no "white" in the spectrum:

But our eyes can see the same named colors with a combination of light frequencies, called color perception:

The color perceived at point T , comes from a combination of frequencies, and many different pairs give the same perceived color. White in this plot is around the achromatic point. Please read the link for details.

In summary, white is not a color in the visible light spectrum, many frequencies could make up the perception of white color, which means that photons of a large variation in energies make up the white color.

Is it a bag of infinite photons of different wavelengths

The figure shows how the frequencies combine to give the perception of white. One needs many photons for our eyes to be able to perceive them, but even a few hundreds can give a signal to the brain, this link might interest you.

or is it a single photon.

A single photon cannot give the perception of white.

Hope this helps.

Edit: Since comments might disappear if there are too many, I copy here a significant comment by @PhysicsTeacher:

but it should be noted that when speaking generally of "white light" one often means light that contains all the spectrum to a significant degree, rather than just a combination of a few frequencies. This is because the context is often that of illumination, and illumination with a weird and tiny frequency combination will result in distorted, "artificial" colors ratther than the "real" colors (i.e. the colors seen in daylight). –

• Your answer made me realize that all the fuss about pink not being a real (spectral) color is (should be) overshadowed by the fact that white isn't either! Jan 8, 2021 at 6:36
• "A single photon cannot give the perception of white." — this is not quite true. Some of the cone cells (in fact, more than half of the population) in the retina generate achromatic percepts, despite having the usual spectral sensitivity, see e.g. this paper. Jan 8, 2021 at 14:16
• Thank you for this really good answer. Until now, I've never understood that color perception diagram. Jan 8, 2021 at 14:31
• @Ruslan if you read the link I gave last, it is still under research if one photon can excite enough the cones to give a flash let alone a color perception.,The link you give speaks of "flashes of light", light is hundreds of thousands of photons. Jan 8, 2021 at 15:54
• Excellent answer, but it should be noted that when speaking generally of "white light" one often means light that contains all the spectrum to a significant degree, rather than just a combination of a few frequencies. This is because the context is often that of illumination, and illumination with a weird and tiny frequency combination will result in distorted, "artificial" colors ratther than the "real" colors (i.e. the colors seen in daylight). Jan 9, 2021 at 20:18

It is very important to understand that white is not a spectral color, but a perceived color. Why?

White is not a spectral color. It's a perceived color. The human eye has three kinds of color receptors, commonly called red, green, and blue. There's no point on the spectrum that you could label as "white". White is a mixture of colors such that our eyes and brain can't distinguish which of red, green, or blue is the winner.

How much red, blue, and green does white light have?

There is no point in the spectrum that you could label as white. White is perceived as white color by our brain, made up of a combination of different colors, that out eyes' receptors sense. It is a commonly believed that there are three different types of cones for red, green and blue. In reality, these cones are sensing short (peaked at 445nm, we call it as blue), mid range (peaked at 535nm, we call it green), and long wavelength range (peaked at 575nm, we call it red) photons.

These receptors have a sensitivity range, that peaks at those wavelengths, but they are sensitive almost through the entire visible spectrum.

It is very important that there can be many different combinations of (different wavelength) photons that can give the perception of white. It is our brain that combines these signals coming from the receptors into a perception of white, and we cannot distinguish how this combination is reached, they will all produce the perception of white.

Yes, a photon by itself can be in a quantum superposition of different frequencies, which one might call "white". No, such a photon probably can't be produced by a simple natural process. No, such a photon would not look white, because the superposition collapses upon measurement, giving only one frequency. (Only one of your cone cells could possibly fire in response, assuming that any even fire at all.) However, a collection of many such photons would collectively look white.

Does a single white photon exist?

Now you are asking about a single photon, but a single photon cannot create the perception of white, because you need multiple photons, with certain different wavelengths to be able to create the perception of white in our brain. Please note, that however, a single photon is a QM entity, and it is possible for a single photon to be in a superposition of states so, that it could be interpreted as a combination of colors that could create white, but as the single photon interacts with the cones in the eye, its superposition collapses into an eigenstate with a single wavelength and thus cannot create the perception of white.

• Nice graphics about the eyes sensivity. Where it is from? Jan 9, 2021 at 5:02
• @HolgerFiedler thank you so much! sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/human-color-vision Jan 9, 2021 at 5:39
• @aschepler thank you I edited. Jan 10, 2021 at 23:12
• Thank you for pointing out the importance of perception. It's interesting to point out the extreme flexibility our brain has for adapting the perception of white. If you look at a white piece of paper on a cloudy day and under candlelight, you'll perceive it as white in both cases even though the spectral output will be vastly different. Jan 18, 2022 at 4:58
• @MarkRansom I'm glad I could help. Jan 18, 2022 at 5:22

At first glance, the question has a trivial answer: white light is light that contains a roughly uniform mixture of photons of all visible wavelengths. Light can appear white when it has a non-uniform mixture of wavelengths that excite the three color receptors in the human retina the same way a uniform mixture does.

HOWEVER, that answer does not address the question that the OP seems really to be asking: "Can a photon be 'white', or must it be only a single wavelength?"

In fact, the wave function of any photon has a finite spectral width. A suitably constructed light source can produce photons having very large spectral width, spanning the entire visible spectrum. If the wavelength of any one such photon is measured, of course only one wavelength will be obtained; but repeated measurements will obtain wavelengths that span the full spectrum of the source. Absorption of a photon by an atom or molecule is equivalent to a measurement of the photon.

• What are the spectral widths of the photons emitted by the Sun? Are those mostly narrowband photons of mixed frequencies or broadband homogenous “white” photons? Jan 7, 2021 at 16:00
• @Prof.Legolasov may this answershttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunlight#Composition_and_power Jan 7, 2021 at 16:37
• @Prof.Legolasov Unfortunately it is not possible to measure the spectral width of a single photon from the Sun, or from any other source. The spectral widths of the wavefunctions of a large number of identically produced photons from a source can be determined statistically. Jan 7, 2021 at 16:55
• @S.McGrew I find it hard to believe that a measurement is impossible in principle for sunlight. Even if it is impossible in practice, we should be able to predict this using astrophysics Jan 8, 2021 at 0:55
• I daresay “any photon has a finite spectral width” is, if not just wrong, then at least more confusing than helpful. Photons don't contain the information of how they were created in any meaningful (measurable) sense. They're just excitations of the EM field. Spectral uncertainty comes from certain properties of the whole system under consideration, not from anything about the individual photons. Jan 8, 2021 at 11:49

There's a bit of a definition or situational problem here. White light MIGHT be an even distribution of visible frequencies, but it might not. From a perceptual perspective, white light is a mixture of frequencies that stimulate the cones of the human visual system in such a manner that they produce the sensation we call "white".

Unlike the other answers, this mixture does not have to be a uniform mixture of frequencies. If you have a good* magnifying glass handy, look at a white area on your computer screen. You will see that it is composed of tiny red, green, and blue dots, with none of the other spectral colors.

It's also a matter of perception. If you have ever taken pictures of a snowy landscape near sunset, you have probably noticed that what you see as white snow, the camera sees as reddish-orange. The brain adjusts (within limits) what you see to what you expect to see - white snow.

*Has to be a good one, or an older low dot pitch display. With my display and desk magnifier, it's barely possible to make out the dots.

• I daresay that the physics meaning of "white light" necessitates all frequencies. Jan 8, 2021 at 17:05
• @user253751: But that is just linguistic shorthand for "evenly distributed over all (visible?) frequencies". Indeed, if we consider sunlight as white light, it's not evenly distributed in the visible light range, being rather more intense in the blue than the red: fondriest.com/environmental-measurements/parameters/weather/… Jan 8, 2021 at 19:07
• In fact, it's sufficient to have two spectral lines (and nothing else) in the spectrum to see the light as white. E.g. $571\,\mathrm{nm}$ and $460\,\mathrm{nm}$ (or near these) in appropriate proportions. Feb 14, 2021 at 14:19
• @Ruslan: Interesting. I would have thought it would take at least three, one for each type of cone cell. Though if the light's dim enough to activate only rods, it's always perceived as white. Which just goes to show that physics and perception are quite different. Feb 15, 2021 at 17:29
• Just look at the chromaticity diagram. Choose a white point (e.g. D65, as for sRGB) and draw a straight line through it, trying not to intersect the line of purples (you'll still have some room to choose the slope). You'll get two intersections of this line with the gamut boundary, which are the two wavelengths you need to achieve your chosen white point. Then it's just the matter of weighing the powers of light sources to move the mixture along the line to achieve the white point. Feb 15, 2021 at 17:42

White light can result from combination of different monochromatic sources, as used in TV screens for example.

But that doesn't mean in my opinion, that all white light results from a mix like that. It is only a trick to get some sensorial effect, as real movement are simulated by sequences of pictures in movies.

The sunlight results from a chaotic movement of charges of the ionized H and He at the surface of the sun. That plane EM waves coming to earth produce in our eyes a "white" sensation.

Colours result from the interaction of that light with matter (diffraction gratings, prisms, or simply selected absortion by material surfaces).

Your main confusion seems to be whether "whiteness" is a property of a particular photon, or of a collection of them, and the answer to that question is that it is a property of a collection of photons. However, you contrast a single photon to an infinite number of photons. While the number of photons emitted by a typical light source is vast (for instance, in one second, a typical light bulb will emit more than a billion times as many photons as there are people on Earth), it's not infinite.

As for your literal question title, light being "white" is more of a biological matter than a physics matter. When light is described as "white", that refers to it having a distribution of wavelengths that humans perceive as "white". And human perception of "white" is context dependent; the human brain actually has a tendency to "normalize" ambient light to white, so that you'll be able to recognize that the same object has the "same" color regardless of light source. "White" light will generally refer to an "even" distribution of light, but the exact definition of "even" varies by context. When dealing with light sources that can be reasonably modeled as black body radiation, "white" is often defined as corresponding to a particular temperature range. (It may seem weird to say that white light is light that comes from black body radiation, but that's a matter for a different question.)