A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter XI
Newton and the composition of light
The composition of the white light
In December, 1672, Newton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and at this meeting a paper describing his invention of the refracting telescope was read. A few days later he wrote to the secretary, making some inquiries as to the weekly meetings of the society, and intimating that he had an account of an interesting discovery that he wished to lay before the society. When this communication was made public, it proved to be an explanation of the discovery of the composition of white light. We have seen that the question as to the nature of color had commanded the attention of such investigators as Huygens, but that no very satisfactory solution of the question had been attained. Newton proved by demonstrative experiments that white light is composed of the blending of the rays of diverse colors, and that the color that we ascribe to any object is merely due to the fact that the object in question reflects rays of that color, absorbing the rest. That white light is really made up of many colors blended would seem incredible had not the experiments by which this composition is demonstrated become familiar to every one. The experiments were absolutely novel when Newton brought them forward, and his demonstration of the composition of light was one of the most striking expositions ever brought to the attention of the Royal Society. It is hardly necessary to add that, notwithstanding the conclusive character of Newton's work, his explanations did not for a long time meet with general acceptance.

Newton was led to his discovery by some experiments made with an ordinary glass prism applied to a hole in the shutter of a darkened room, the refracted rays of the sunlight being received upon the opposite wall and forming there the familiar spectrum. "It was a very pleasing diversion," he wrote, "to view the vivid and intense colors produced thereby; and after a time, applying myself to consider them very circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in varying form, which, according to the received laws of refraction, I expected should have been circular. They were terminated at the sides with straight lines, but at the ends the decay of light was so gradual that it was difficult to determine justly what was their figure, yet they seemed semicircular.

"Comparing the length of this colored spectrum with its breadth, I found it almost five times greater; a disproportion so extravagant that it excited me to a more than ordinary curiosity of examining from whence it might proceed. I could scarce think that the various thicknesses of the glass, or the termination with shadow or darkness, could have any influence on light to produce such an effect; yet I thought it not amiss, first, to examine those circumstances, and so tried what would happen by transmitting light through parts of the glass of divers thickness, or through holes in the window of divers bigness, or by setting the prism without so that the light might pass through it and be refracted before it was transmitted through the hole; but I found none of those circumstances material. The fashion of the colors was in all these cases the same.

"Then I suspected whether by any unevenness of the glass or other contingent irregularity these colors might be thus dilated. And to try this I took another prism like the former, and so placed it that the light, passing through them both, might be refracted contrary ways, and so by the latter returned into that course from which the former diverted it. For, by this means, I thought, the regular effects of the first prism would be destroyed by the second prism, but the irregular ones more augmented by the multiplicity of refractions. The event was that the light, which by the first prism was diffused into an oblong form, was by the second reduced into an orbicular one with as much regularity as when it did not all pass through them. So that, whatever was the cause of that length, 'twas not any contingent irregularity.

"I then proceeded to examine more critically what might be effected by the difference of the incidence of rays coming from divers parts of the sun; and to that end measured the several lines and angles belonging to the image. Its distance from the hole or prism was 22 feet; its utmost length 13 1/4 inches; its breadth 2 5/8; the diameter of the hole 1/4 of an inch; the angle which the rays, tending towards the middle of the image, made with those lines, in which they would have proceeded without refraction, was 44 degrees 56'; and the vertical angle of the prism, 63 degrees 12'. Also the refractions on both sides of the prism - that is, of the incident and emergent rays - were, as near as I could make them, equal, and consequently about 54 degrees 4'; and the rays fell perpendicularly upon the wall. Now, subducting the diameter of the hole from the length and breadth of the image, there remains 13 inches the length, and 2 3/8 the breadth, comprehended by those rays, which, passing through the centre of the said hole, which that breadth subtended, was about 31', answerable to the sun's diameter; but the angle which its length subtended was more than five such diameters, namely 2 degrees 49'.

"Having made these observations, I first computed from them the refractive power of the glass, and found it measured by the ratio of the sines 20 to 31. And then, by that ratio, I computed the refractions of two rays flowing from opposite parts of the sun's discus, so as to differ 31' in their obliquity of incidence, and found that the emergent rays should have comprehended an angle of 31', as they did, before they were incident.

"But because this computation was founded on the hypothesis of the proportionality of the sines of incidence and refraction, which though by my own experience I could not imagine to be so erroneous as to make that angle but 31', which in reality was 2 degrees 49', yet my curiosity caused me again to make my prism. And having placed it at my window, as before, I observed that by turning it a little about its axis to and fro, so as to vary its obliquity to the light more than an angle of 4 degrees or 5 degrees, the colors were not thereby sensibly translated from their place on the wall, and consequently by that variation of incidence the quantity of refraction was not sensibly varied. By this experiment, therefore, as well as by the former computation, it was evident that the difference of the incidence of rays flowing from divers parts of the sun could not make them after decussation diverge at a sensibly greater angle than that at which they before converged; which being, at most, but about 31' or 32', there still remained some other cause to be found out, from whence it could be 2 degrees 49'."

All this caused Newton to suspect that the rays, after their trajection through the prism, moved in curved rather than in straight lines, thus tending to be cast upon the wall at different places according to the amount of this curve. His suspicions were increased, also, by happening to recall that a tennis-ball sometimes describes such a curve when "cut" by a tennis-racket striking the ball obliquely.

"For a circular as well as a progressive motion being communicated to it by the stroke," he says, "its parts on that side where the motions conspire must press and beat the contiguous air more violently than on the other, and there excite a reluctancy and reaction of the air proportionately greater. And for the same reason, if the rays of light should possibly be globular bodies, and by their oblique passage out of one medium into another acquire a circulating motion, they ought to feel the greater resistance from the ambient ether on that side where the motions conspire, and thence be continually bowed to the other. But notwithstanding this plausible ground of suspicion, when I came to examine it I could observe no such curvity in them. And, besides (which was enough for my purpose), I observed that the difference 'twixt the length of the image and diameter of the hole through which the light was transmitted was proportionable to their distance.

"The gradual removal of these suspicions at length led me to the experimentum crucis, which was this: I took two boards, and, placing one of them close behind the prism at the window, so that the light must pass through a small hole, made in it for the purpose, and fall on the other board, which I placed at about twelve feet distance, having first made a small hole in it also, for some of the incident light to pass through. Then I placed another prism behind this second board, so that the light trajected through both the boards might pass through that also, and be again refracted before it arrived at the wall. This done, I took the first prism in my hands and turned it to and fro slowly about its axis, so much as to make the several parts of the image, cast on the second board, successively pass through the hole in it, that I might observe to what places on the wall the second prism would refract them. And I saw by the variation of these places that the light, tending to that end of the image towards which the refraction of the first prism was made, did in the second prism suffer a refraction considerably greater than the light tending to the other end. And so the true cause of the length of that image was detected to be no other than that LIGHT consists of RAYS DIFFERENTLY REFRANGIBLE, which, without any respect to a difference in their incidence, were, according to their degrees of refrangibility, transmitted towards divers parts of the wall."[1]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.