interference, in physics, the effect produced by the combination or superposition of two systems of waves, in which these waves reinforce, neutralize, or in other ways interfere with each other. Interference is observed in both sound waves and electromagnetic waves, especially those of visible light and radio.
Interference in Sound Waves
When two sound waves occur at the same time and are in the same phase, i.e., when the condensations of the two coincide and hence their rarefactions also, the waves reinforce each other and the sound becomes louder. This is known as constructive interference. On the other hand, two sound waves occurring simultaneously and having the same intensity neutralize each other if the rarefactions of the one coincide with the condensations of the other, i.e., if they are of opposite phase. This canceling is known as destructive interference. In this case, the result is silence.
Alternate reinforcement and neutralization (or weakening) take place when two sound waves differing slightly in frequency are superimposed. The audible result is a series of pulsations or, as these pulsations are called commonly, beats, caused by the alternate coincidence of first a condensation of the one wave with a condensation of the other and then a condensation with a rarefaction. The beat frequency is equal to the difference between the frequencies of the interfering sound waves.
Interference in Light Waves
Light waves reinforce or neutralize each other in very much the same way as sound waves. If, for example, two light waves each of one color (monochromatic waves), of the same amplitude, and of the same frequency are combined, the interference they exhibit is characterized by so-called fringes—a series of light bands (resulting from reinforcement) alternating with dark bands (caused by neutralization). Such a pattern is formed either by light passing through two narrow slits and being diffracted (see diffraction), or by light passing through a single slit. In the case of two slits, each slit acts as a light source, producing two sets of waves that may combine or cancel depending upon their phase relationship. In the case of a single slit, each point within the slit acts as a light source. In all cases, for light waves to demonstrate such behavior, they must emanate from the same source; light from distinct sources has too many random differences to permit interference patterns.
The relative positions of light and dark lines depend upon the wavelength of the light, among other factors. Thus, if white light, which is made up of all colors, is used instead of monochromatic light, bands of color are formed because each color, or wavelength, is reinforced at a different position. This fact is utilized in the diffraction grating, which forms a spectrum by diffraction and interference of a beam of light incident on it. Newton's rings also are the result of the interference of light. They are formed concentrically around the point of contact between a glass plate and a slightly convex lens set upon it or between two lenses pressed together; they consist of bright rings separated by dark ones when monochromatic light is used, or of alternate spectrum-colored and black rings when white light is used. Various natural phenomena are the result of interference, e.g., the colors appearing in soap bubbles and the iridescence of mother-of-pearl and other substances.
Interference as a Scientific Tool
The experiments of Thomas Young first illustrated interference and definitely pointed the way to a wave theory of light. A. J. Fresnel's experiments clearly demonstrated that the interference phenomena could be explained adequately only upon the basis of a wave theory. The thickness of a very thin film such as the soap-bubble wall can be measured by an instrument called the interferometer. When the wavelength of the light is known, the interferometer indicates the thickness of the film by the interference patterns it forms. The reverse process, i.e., the measurement of the length of an unknown light wave, can also be carried out by the interferometer.
The Michelson interferometer used in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 to determine the velocity of light had a half-silvered mirror to split an incident beam of light into two parts at right angles to one another. The two halves of the beam were then reflected off mirrors and rejoined. Any difference in the speed of light along the paths could be detected by the interference pattern. The failure of the experiment to detect any such difference threw doubt on the existence of the ether and thus paved the way for the special theory of relativity.
Another type of interferometer devised by Michelson has been applied in measuring the diameters of certain stars. The radio interferometer consists of two or more radio telescopes separated by fairly large distances (necessary because radio waves are much longer than light waves) and is used to pinpoint and study various celestial sources of radiation in the radio range. Astronomical interferometers consisting of two or more optical telescopes are used to enhance visible images of distant celestial objects. See radio astronomy; virtual telescope.