Quantitative description and analysisWaves propagating through a slit one wavelength wide. Waves propagating through a slit six wavelengths wide.
Because diffraction is the result of addition of all waves (of given wavelength) along all unobstructed paths, the usual procedure is to consider the contribution of an infinitesimally small neighborhood around a certain path (this contribution is usually called a wavelet) and then integrate over all paths (=add all wavelets) from the source to the detector (or given point on a screen).
Thus in order to determine the pattern produced by diffraction, the phase and the amplitude of each of the wavelets is calculated. That is, at each point in space we must determine the distance to each of the simple sources on the incoming wavefront. If the distance to each of the simple sources differs by an integer number of wavelengths, all the wavelets will be in phase, resulting in constructive interference. If the distance to each source is an integer plus one half of a wavelength, there will be complete destructive interference. Usually, it is sufficient to determine these minima and maxima to explain the observed diffraction effects.
The simplest descriptions of diffraction are those in which the situation can be reduced to a two-dimensional problem. For water waves, this is already the case, as water waves propagate only on the surface of the water. For light, we can often neglect one dimension if the diffracting object extends in that direction over a distance far greater than the wavelength. In the case of light shining through small circular holes we will have to take into account the full three-dimensional nature of the problem.
Several qualitative observations can be made of diffraction in general:
- The angular spacing of the features in the diffraction pattern is inversely proportional to the dimensions of the object causing the diffraction. In other words: the smaller the diffracting object, the wider the resulting diffraction pattern, and vice versa. (More precisely, this is true of the sines of the angles.)
- The diffraction angles are invariant under scaling; that is, they depend only on the ratio of the wavelength to the size of the diffracting object.
- When the diffracting object has a periodic structure, for example in a diffraction grating, the features generally become sharper. The third figure, for example, shows a comparison of a double-slit pattern with a pattern formed by five slits, both sets of slits having the same spacing between the center of one slit and the next.
The problem of calculating what a diffracted wave looks like, is the problem of determining the phase of each of the simple sources on the incoming wave front. It is mathematically easier to consider the case of far-field or Fraunhofer diffraction, where the point of observation is far from that of the diffracting obstruction, and as a result, involves less complex mathematics than the more general case of near-field or Fresnel diffraction. To make this statement more quantitative, let's consider a diffracting object at the origin that has a size . For definiteness let's say we are diffracting light and we are interested in what the intensity looks like on a screen a distance away from the object. At some point on the screen the path length to one side of the object is given by the Pythagorean theorem
If we now consider the situation where , the path length becomes
This is the Fresnel approximation. To further simplify things: If the diffracting object is much smaller than the distance , the last term will contribute much less than a wavelength to the path length, and will then not change the phase appreciably. That is . The result is the Fraunhofer approximation, which is only valid very far away from the object
Depending on the size of the diffraction object, the distance to the object and the wavelength of the wave, the Fresnel approximation, the Fraunhofer approximation or neither approximation may be valid. As the distance between the measured point of diffraction and the obstruction point increases, the diffraction patterns or results predicted converge towards those of Fraunhofer diffraction, which is more often observed in nature due to the extremely small wavelength of visible light.