optical

zodiacal light

Band of very faint light in the night sky. It is thought to be sunlight reflected from interplanetary dust grains lying mostly in the plane of the zodiac, or ecliptic. Seen in the west after twilight and in the east before dawn, it is most clearly visible in the tropics, where the ecliptic is approximately perpendicular to the horizon. In midnorthern latitudes it is best seen evenings in February and March and mornings in September and October (vice versa in midsouthern latitudes). The light can be followed visually to a point about 90° from the Sun. It continues to the region opposite the Sun, where a slight enhancement, the gegenschein, is visible.

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Distance traveled by light moving in a vacuum in one year, at its accepted speed of 186,282 mi/second (299,792 km/second). It equals about 5.9 trillion mi (9.5 trillion km), 63,240 astronomical units, or 0.307 parsec.

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Semiconductor diode that produces visible or infrared light when subjected to an electric current, as a result of electroluminescence. Visible-light LEDs are used in many electronic devices as indicator lamps (e.g., an on/off indicator) and, when arranged in a matrix, to spell out letters or numbers on alphanumeric displays. Infrared LEDs are used in optoelectronics (e.g., in auto-focus cameras and television remote controls) and as light sources in some long-range fibre-optic communications systems. LEDs are formed by the so-called III-V compound semiconductors related to gallium arsenide. They consume little power and are long-lasting and inexpensive.

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That portion of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye. It ranges from the red end to the violet end of the spectrum, with wavelengths from 700 to 400 nanometres and frequencies from 4.3 × 1014 to 7.5 × 1014 Hz. Like all electromagnetic radiation, it travels through empty space at a speed of about 186,000 mi/sec (300,000 km/sec). In the mid-19th century, light was described by James Clerk Maxwell in terms of electromagnetic waves, but 20th-century physicists showed that it exhibits properties of particles as well; its carrier particle is the photon. Light is the basis for the sense of sight and for the perception of colour. Seealso optics; wave-particle duality.

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Ability of a substance to rotate the plane of polarization of a beam of light passed through it, either as crystals or in solution. Clockwise rotation as one faces the light source is “positive,” or dextrorotary; counterclockwise rotation “negative,” or levorotary. Louis Pasteur was the first to recognize that molecules with optical activity are stereoisomers (see isomerism). Optical isomers occur in pairs that are nonsuperimposable mirror images of one another. They have the same physical properties except for their effect on polarized light; in chemical properties they differ only in their interactions with other stereoisomers (see asymmetric synthesis).

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