Scattering of electromagnetic radiation

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Scattering of electromagnetic radiation

The process in which energy is removed from a beam of electromagnetic radiation and reemitted with a change in direction, phase, or wavelength. All electromagnetic radiation is subject to scattering by the medium (gas, liquid, or solid) through which it passes.

It has been known since the work of J. Maxwell in the nineteenth century that accelerating electric charges radiate energy and, conversely, that electromagnetic radiation consists of fields which accelerate charged particles. Light in the visible, infrared, or ultraviolet region interacts primarily with the electrons in gases, liquids, and solids—not the nuclei. The scattering process in these wavelength regions consists of acceleration of the electrons by the incident beam, followed by reradiation from the accelerating charges. See Electromagnetic radiation

Scattering processes may be divided according to the time between the absorption of energy from the incident beam and the subsequent reradiation. True “scattering” refers only to those processes which are essentially instantaneous. Mechanisms in which there is a measurable delay between absorption and reemission are usually termed luminescence. See Luminescence

Instantaneous scattering processes may be further categorized according to the wavelength shifts involved. Some scattering is “elastic”; there is no wavelength change, only a phase shift. In 1928 C. V. Raman discovered the process in which light was inelastically scattered and its energy was shifted by an amount equal to the vibrational energy of a molecule or crystal.

In liquids or gases two distinct processes generate inelastic scattering with small wavelength shifts. The first is Brillouin scattering from pressure waves. When a sound wave propagates through a medium, it produces alternate regions of high compression (high density) and low compression (or rarefaction). Brillouin scattering of light to higher (or lower) frequencies occurs because the medium is moving toward (or away from) the light source. This is an optical Doppler effect. See Doppler effect

The second kind of inelastic scattering studied in fluids is due to entropy and temperature fluctuations, and is known as Rayleigh scattering. These entropy fluctuations produce a broadening in the scattered radiation centered about the exciting wavelength, rather than sharp, well-defined wavelength shifts. Under the assumption that the scattering in fluids is from particles much smaller than the wavelength of the exciting light, Lord Rayleigh derived in 1871 an equation for such scattering. The dependence of scattering intensity upon the inverse fourth power of the wavelength given in Rayleigh's equation is responsible for the fact that daytime sky looks blue and sunsets red: blue light is scattered out of the sunlight by the air molecules more strongly than red; at sunset, more red light passes directly to the eyes without being scattered. See Entropy

Rayleigh's derivation of his scattering equation relies on the assumption of small, independent particles. Under some circumstances of interest, both of these assumptions fail. Colloidal suspensions provide systems in which the scattering particles are comparable to or larger than the exciting wavelengths. Such scattering is called the Tyndall effect and results in a nearly wavelength-independent (that is, white) scattering spectrum. The Tyndall effect is the reason clouds are white (the waterdroplets become larger than the wavelengths of visible light).

The breakdown of Rayleigh's second assumption—that of independent particles—occurs in all liquids. There is strong correlation between the motion of neighboring particles. This leads to fixed phase relations and destructive interference for most of the scattered light. The remaining scattering arises from fluctuations in particle density discussed above.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.