Light and fundamental forces: Scale of the universe

No single answer to the question “What is light?” satisfies the many contexts in which light is experienced, explored, and exploited. The physicist is interested in the physical properties of light, the artist in an aesthetic appreciation of the visual world. Through the sense of sight, light is a primary tool for perceiving the world and communicating within it.

Light from the Sun warms the Earth, drives global weather patterns, and initiates the life-sustaining process of photosynthesis. On the grandest scale, light’s interactions with matter have helped shape the structure of the universe. Indeed, light provides a window on the universe, from cosmological to atomic scales. Almost all of the information about the rest of the universe reaches Earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation. By interpreting that radiation, astronomers can glimpse the earliest epochs of the universe, measure the general expansion of the universe, and determine the chemical composition of stars and the interstellar medium. Just as the invention of the telescope dramatically broadened exploration of the universe, so too the invention of the microscope opened the intricate world of the cell.

The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics. Atomic and molecular spectroscopies continue to be primary tools for probing the structure of matter, providing ultrasensitive tests of atomic and molecular models and contributing to studies of fundamental photochemical reactions.