Uses of diffraction

October 29, 2014
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Eventually the work of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894), and others confirmed that light did indeed travel in waves. Later, however, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) showed that light behaves both as a wave and, in certain circumstances, as a particle.

In 1912, a few years after Einstein published his findings, German physicist Max Theodor Felix von Laue (1879-1960) created a diffraction grating, discussed below. Using crystals in his grating, he proved that x rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Laue's work, which earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1914, also made it possible to measure the length of x rays, and, ultimately, provided a means for studying the atomic structure of crystals and polymers.


Studies in diffraction advanced during the early twentieth century. In 1926, English physicist J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) developed the Bernal chart, enabling scientists to deduce the crystal structure of a solid by analyzing photographs of x-ray diffraction patterns. A decade later, Dutch-American physical chemist Peter Joseph William Debye (1884-1966) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies in the diffraction of x rays and electrons in gases, which advanced understanding of molecular structure. In 1937, a year after Debye's Nobel, two other scientists—American physicist Clinton Joseph Davisson (1881-1958) and English physicist George Paget Thomson (1892-1975)—won the Prize in Physics for their discovery that crystals can bring about the diffraction of electrons.

Also, in 1937, English physicist William Thomas Astbury (1898-1961) used x-ray diffraction to discover the first information concerning nucleic acid, which led to advances in the study of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the building-blocks of human genetics. In 1952, English biophysicist Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (1916-) and molecular biologist Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) used x-ray diffraction to photograph DNA. Their work directly influenced a breakthrough event that followed a year later: the discovery of the double-helix or double-spiral model of DNA by American molecular biologists James D. Watson (1928-) and Francis Crick (1916-). Today, studies in DNA are at the frontiers of research in biology and related fields.

Diffraction Grating

Much of the work described in the preceding paragraphs made use of a diffraction grating, first developed in the 1870s by American physicist Henry Augustus Rowland (1848-1901). A diffraction grating is an optical device that consists of not one but many thousands of apertures: Rowland's machine used a fine diamond point to rule glass gratings, with about 15, 000 lines per in (2.2 cm). Diffraction gratings today can have as many as 100, 000 apertures per inch. The apertures in a diffraction grating are not mere holes, but extremely narrow parallel slits that transform a beam of light into a spectrum.

Each of these openings diffracts the light beam, but because they are evenly spaced and the same in width, the diffracted waves experience constructive interference. (The latter phenomenon, which describes a situation in which two or more waves combine to produce a wave of greater magnitude than either, is discussed in the essay on Interference.) This constructive interference pattern makes it possible to view components of the spectrum separately, thus enabling a scientist to observe characteristics ranging from the structure of atoms and molecules to the chemical composition of stars.


Because they are much higher in frequency and energy levels, x rays are even shorter in wavelength than visible light waves. Hence, for x-ray diffraction, it is necessary to have gratings in which lines are separated by infinitesimal distances. These distances are typically measured in units called an angstrom, of which there are 10 million to a millimeter. Angstroms are used in measuring atoms, and, indeed, the spaces between lines in an x-ray diffraction grating are comparable to the size of atoms.

When x rays irradiate a crystal—in other words, when the crystal absorbs radiation in the form of x rays—atoms in the crystal diffract the rays. One of the characteristics of a crystal is that its atoms are equally spaced, and, because of this, it is possible to discover the location and distance between atoms by studying x-ray diffraction patterns. Bragg's law—named after the father-andson team of English physicists William Henry Bragg (1862-1942) and William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971)—describes x-ray diffraction patterns in crystals.

Though much about x-ray diffraction and crystallography seems rather abstract, its application in areas such as DNA research indicates that it has numerous applications for improving human life. The elder Bragg expressed this fact in 1915, the year he and his son received the Nobel Prize in physics, saying that "We are now able to look ten thousand times deeper into the structure of the matter that makes up our universe than when we had to depend on the microscope alone." Today, physicists applying x-ray diffraction use an instrument called a diffractometer, which helps them compare diffraction patterns with those of known crystals, as a means of determining the structure of new materials.


A hologram—a word derived from the Greek holos, "whole, " and gram, "message"—is a three-dimensional (3-D) impression of an object, and the method of producing these images is known as holography. Holograms make use of laser beams that mix at an angle, producing an interference pattern of alternating bright and dark lines. The surface of the hologram itself is a sort of diffraction grating, with alternating strips of clear and opaque material. By mixing a laser beam and the unfocused diffraction pattern of an object, an image can be recorded. An illuminating laser beam is diffracted at specific angles, in accordance with Bragg's law, on the surfaces of the hologram, making it possible for an observer to see a three-dimensional image.

Holograms are not to be confused with ordinary three-dimensional images that use only visible light. The latter are produced by a method known as stereoscopy, which creates a single image from two, superimposing the images to create the impression of a picture with depth. Though stereoscopic images make it seem as though one can "step into" the picture, a hologram actually enables the viewer to glimpse the image from any angle. Thus, stereoscopic images can be compared to looking through the plate-glass window of a store display, whereas holograms convey the sensation that one has actually stepped into the store window itself.

Reflection-Diffraction of Water Waves
Reflection-Diffraction of Water Waves
3 Uses of diffraction gratings
3 Uses of diffraction gratings
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