QED - Section 1

We begin with light. When Newton started looking at light, the first thing he found was that white light is a mixture of colors. He separated white light with a prism into various colors, but when he put light of one color—red, for instance - through another prism, he found it could not be separated further. So Newton found that white light is a mixture of different colors, each of which is pure in the sense that it can't be separated further.

When I say "light" in these lectures, I don't mean simply the light we can see, from red to blue. It turns out that visible light is just a part of a long scale that's analogous to a musical scale in which there are notes higher than you can hear and other notes lower than you can hear. The scale of light can be described by numbers—called the frequency—and as the numbers get higher, the light goes from red to blue to violet to ultraviolet. We can't see ultraviolet light, but it can affect photographic plates. Its still light— only the number is different. (We shouldn't be so provincial: what we can detect directly with our own instrument, the eye, isn't the only thing in the world!) If we continue simply to change the number, we go out into X-rays, gamma rays, and so on. If we change the number in the other direction, we go from blue to red to infrared (heat) waves, then television waves and radio waves. For me, all of that is "light" I'm going to use just red light for most of my examples, but the theory of quantum electrodynamics extends over the entire range that I have described.

Newton thought that light was made up of particles -- he called them "corpuscles" -- and he was right (but the reasoning that he used to come to that decision was erroneous). We know that light is made of particles because we can take a very sensitive instrument that makes clicks when light shines on it, and if the light gets dimmer, the clicks remain just as loud -- there are just fewer of them. Thus light is something like raindrops -- each little lump of light is called a photon -- and if the light is all one color, all the "raindrops" are the same size.

(from QED, by Richard Feynman, p. 13)