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In physics, diffraction is a wave phenomenon in which the apparent bending and spreading of waves when they meet an obstruction. Diffraction occurs with electromagnetic waves, such as light and radio waves, and also in sound waves and water waves. Diffraction also occurs when any group of waves of a finite size is propagating; for example, a narrow beam of light waves from a laser must, because of diffraction of the beam, eventually diverge into a wider beam at a sufficient distance from the laser.

It is mathematically easier to consider the case of far-field or Fraunhofer diffraction, where the diffracting obstruction is many wavelengths distant from the point at which the wave is measured. The more general case is known as near-field or Fresnel diffraction, and involves more complex mathematics. As the observation distance in increased the results predicted by the Fresnel theory converge towards those predicted by the simpler Fraunhofer theory. This article considers far-field diffraction, which is commonly observed in nature.

Double-slit diffraction

Double-slit diffraction
(red laser light)

2-slit and 5-slit diffraction

The most conceptually simple example of diffraction is double-slit diffraction in which both slits have relatively narrow widths compared to the wavelength of the wave. Suppose, for the sake of visualization, that these are water waves. After passing through the slits, two overlapping patterns of semicircular ripples are formed, as shown in the first figure. Where a crest overlaps with a crest, a double-height crest will be formed; this is constructive interference. Constructive interference also occurs where a trough overlaps another trough. However, when a trough and a crest overlap, they cancel out; the interference is destructive. The second figure shows the result of this process with light waves of a single wavelength originating from a laser. The constructive-interference locations are called maxima, because they have maximum brightness. The destructive-interference locations are the minima. Historically, the first proof that light was a wave phenomenon came from the double-slit experiment of Thomas Young.

Several qualitative observations can be made:

Quantitatively, the angular positions of the maxima in multiple-slit diffraction are given by the equation


where m is an integer that labels the order of each maxima. This is a form of Bragg's law (see below).

Graph and image

It is also possible to derive exact equations for the intensity of the diffraction pattern as a function of angle. One of the simplest analytic results occurs for single-slit diffraction. From monochromatic waves of wavelength λ incident on a slit of width d, the intensity I of the diffracted waves at an angle θ is given by:

where the sinc function is given by sinc(x) = sin(x)/x. If the aperture is circular, the pattern is given by a radially symmetric version of this equation, representing a series of concentric rings surrounding a central Airy disc.

A wave does not have to pass through an aperture to diffract; for example, a beam of light of a finite size also undergoes diffraction and spreads in diameter. This effect limits the minimum size d of spot of light formed at the focus of a lens:


where λ is the wavelength of the light, f is the focal length of the lens, and D is the diameter of the lens. (See Rayleigh criterion).

By use of Huygens' principle, it is possible to compute the diffraction pattern of a wave from any arbitrary shapped aperture. If the pattern is observed at a sufficient distance from the aperture, it will appear as the two-dimentional Fourier transform of the function representing the aperture.

Diffraction from multiple slits, as described above, is similar to what occurs when waves are scattered from a periodic structure, such as atoms in a crystal or rulings on a diffraction grating. Each scattering center (e.g., each atom) acts as a point source of spherical wavefronts; these wavefronts undergo constructive interference to form a number of diffracted beams. The direction of these beams is described by Bragg's law:


where λ is the wavelength, d is the distance between scattering centers, θ is the angle of diffraction and m is an integer known as the order of the diffracted beam. Bragg diffraction is used in X-ray crystallography to deduce the structure of a crystal from the angles at which X-rays are diffracted from it.

The most common demonstration of Bragg diffraction is the spectrum of colors seen reflected from a compact disc: the closely-spaced tracks on the surface of the disc form a diffraction grating, and the individual wavelengths of white light are diffracted at different angles from it, in accordance with Bragg's law.

In addition to diffraction of classical waves due to Wave-particle duality it is also possible to observe diffraction of particles such as neutrons or electrons. As the wavelengths of these particle-waves are so small they can be used as probes of the atomic structure of crystals. See Electron diffraction and Neutron diffraction.