I have a hard time understanding why light waves of different wavelengths diffract in a different manner. According to Huygens' principle, every point on the wavefront is a source of a secondary wave. So if we have a white light going through, say, a single slit (light rays parallel to each other and perpendicular to slit's plane), all what's supposed to happen is a plain diffraction, just like of any other wave. That is, the wave will progress spherically, but it will still be a white light. Why instead we get a splitting of different wavelengths? In other words, how does light color affect diffraction geometrically?

  • $\begingroup$ You should understand that diffraction is not changing the direction of the wave. Diffraction is interference of waves. Depending on the wavelength, the waves will interfere constructively an destructively at different points of space. $\endgroup$
    – cinico
    Jan 23, 2014 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ @cinico - though fundamentally they are the same phenomena, diffraction is "cutting off" the wavefront, leaving only part of it which will basically interfere with itself. The problem is that I do not understand why should the interfering process around the edges be different than before hitting the slits. That is, why wouldn't the waves making the white light (superposition of all waves of visible light) continue interfering with each other, just like before with the only exception of being spread out spherically. $\endgroup$
    – user37433
    Jan 23, 2014 at 19:22

2 Answers 2


Diffraction effects depend on the wavelength of the light. Considering a single narrow slit with monochromatic light, light with wavelengths much larger than the slit will not be transmitted and light with wavelengths much shorter than the slit will be transmitted without significant diffraction effects, but light with wavelengths comparable to the slit will show significant diffraction effects.

The reason that diffraction effects are able to split white light into its different colors is because white light is composed of an incoherent combination of many different wavelengths of light. The different wavelengths get diffracted by different amounts, and the effect you see is that the white light gets split into its spectrum of colors. Additionally, since the light is incoherent, you don't see dark and bright spots like you would with monochromatic light.

How do we understand from Huygen's principle that light with wavelengths much shorter than the slit do not diffract very much? This is because points near the middle of the slit and points near the edges of the slit, which are both emitting spherical waves will interfere destructively except for in the direction straight ahead.

  • $\begingroup$ ".. light with wavelengths much larger than the slit will not be transmitted .." Why? $\endgroup$
    – Sensebe
    Jan 23, 2014 at 18:42

I do not think Huyghens principle can be applied to white light, only to simple harmonic waves. Waves of light with different color have different wavelength, which will affect the radius of sphere drawn in the Huyghens construction. Around obstacles, waves with different wavelengths will move differently.

  • $\begingroup$ "Around obstacles, waves with different wavelengths will move differently" - this is exactly what I ask about - why? Alright, you say Huygens' principle is problematic here, but the question still remains. $\endgroup$
    – user37433
    Jan 23, 2014 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ Because the result of the Huyghens construction depends both on the wave length and the obstacle length. When wave length is changed but obstacle remains, the resulting pattern will change. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2014 at 18:06

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