Friday, September 17, 2010

Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Apparently, dear reader, I am still obsessed by my trip to Paris last summer, because this will be the third week in a row that this blog has been about a famous French scientist. I hope you enjoy it.

Diffraction is a fundamental topic in physical optics that receives scant attention in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. In fact, the index contains no entry for diffraction. (By the way, Russ Hobbie and I worked hard to make the index as complete and useful as possible.) However, a search for the term "diffraction" yields many appearances. Often it shows up as part of the term “X-ray diffraction,” but I have already addressed that technique in this blog a few weeks ago. A footnote on page 327, in Chapter 12 about images, mentions interference and diffraction in the context of coherence, and diffraction appears several times when discussing point-spread functions in that chapter. In Chapter 13 on ultrasound, diffraction is mentioned again as representing a limit to our ability to obtain an image. In Chapter 14, diffraction is discussed as a factor limiting our visual acuity.

The study of diffraction has a fascinating history, going back to the fundamental work of the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827). Fresnel makes only one brief appearance in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, when discussing diffraction effects and the “Fresnel Zone” produced by an ultrasound transducer. To try and make up for Fresnel’s absence from our book, I will provide here some of the highlights of his short life (he died at age 39). Incidentally, I’m not the only blogger interested in Fresnel.

I first came to appreciate Fresnel’s contributions when reading the books of physicist Mark Silverman. In particular, I enjoyed Silverman’s Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning. He writes
“Fresnel, as the reader will discover (if it is not already obvious), is a central figure and something of a hero in this book. Pathetically all too human in his desperate desire to distinguish himself in the world of science, his ambitions are the ambitions of all of us who do research, write papers, and seek recognition. As a young man trained in engineering, he first turned his attention to industrial chemistry but learned to his chagrin that what he thought was original work was anticipated by others. Disappointed, he later immersed himself in the wave theory of light, guided and encouraged by Francois Arago—one of very few wave enthusiasts in the Paris Academy—who helped publicize his work both in France and abroad. […]

In 1817 the Paris Academy launched a competition for the essay best accounting for the diffraction of light. With the exception of Arago, the committee responsible for the event consisted exclusively of partisans, like Laplace and Biot, of the particle hypothesis [of light…]. Fresnel, as one might imagine, was not initially enthusiastic about entering—his whole direction of research having apparently already been ruled out by the wording. Nevertheless, urged on again by Arago, he composed a lengthy paper summarizing his philosophical approach, his methods, and his results. It is an amusing irony of history that Simeon-Denis Poisson—another graduate of the Polytechnique noted for his broad theoretical contributions to physics and mathematics, and a staunch advocate of the corpuscular theory—noted a glaring inconsistency in Fresnel’s theory. Applying this theory to an opaque circular screen, Poisson deduced the (to him) ludicrous result that the center of the shadow (doit) etre aussi eclaire que si l’ecran n’existait pas (must be as brightly illuminated as if the screen did not exist). Arago performed the experiment in advance of the committee’s decision, and the bright center—which history records as Poisson’s spot—showed up as predicted.

Fresnel, his relentless efforts finally recognized, received the prize—but Biot, Poisson, and other remained unshaken in their particle convictions.”
If you get a copy of Silverman’s book, don’t miss the last chapters on Science and Learning.

Living here in Michigan, surrounded by the Great Lakes, I have become fond of lighthouses, and particularly with the spectacular Fresnel Lenses that you can find in many of them. Click here to see pictures of some, and here to see information about Fresnel lenses found in Michigan. It is another of Fresnel’s many contributions to science.

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