Why does light travel slower in some media than in a vacuum? For example, in glass or other transparent media, visible light is not absorbed and yet it slows down. What’s going on? — FH, Waltham, MA
When a light wave enters matter, the light wave’s electric field causes charged particles in the matter to accelerate back and forth. That’s because an electric field exerts forces on charged particles. The light wave gives up some of its energy to these charged particles and is partially absorbed in the process. However, the charged particles don’t retain the light’s energy very long. They are accelerating and accelerating charged particles emit electromagnetic waves. In fact, they reemit the very same light wave that they absorbed moments earlier. Overall, the light wave is partially absorbed and then reemitted by each electrically charged particle it encounters, so that the light continues on its way as though nothing had happened.
However, something has happened—the light wave has been delayed ever so slightly. This absorption and reemission process holds the light wave back so that it travels at less than its full speed. If the charged particles in the matter are few and far between, this slowing effect is almost insignificant. But in dense materials such as glass or diamond, the light wave can be slowed substantially.
Actually, higher frequency violet light is slowed more than lower frequency red light because violet light is more effectively absorbed and reemitted by the atoms in most transparent materials. That’s because when a high frequency light wave encounters the electrons in an atom, the jiggling motion is so rapid and the electrons’ motions are so small that the electrons never reach the boundaries of the atom. As a result, those electrons are able to jiggle back and forth as though they were free electrons and they do a good job of slowing the light wave down. But when a low frequency light wave encounters the electrons in an atom, the jiggling motion is slower and the electrons’ motions are so large that they quickly reach the boundaries of the atom. As a result, those electrons aren’t able to jiggle back and forth as far as they should and they don’t slow the light wave down as well.