In word: nothing. The idea that air

In physics, it’s rare for wave energy to travel in a completely straight line.

Several processes can occur that make the wave depart from its path. This lesson will cover one of those processes, scattering, and give a few examples of it in action.

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Introduction and Definition of Scattering

If you ask a first-grade student what’s in air, the answer will probably be one word: nothing.

The idea that air is full of particles, chemicals, and various gases is not an easy one to understand. When you take a breath of air, it is not a breath of nothing (thankfully!). So, when certain forms of energy pass through air, their path is sometimes shifted, and they travel in a direction that is unexpected. Of course, we could be talking about any media–air, water, solid rock–but air is an easy one to wrap our minds around.When energy waves (such as light, sound, and various electromagnetic waves) are caused to depart from a straight path due to imperfections in the medium, it is called scattering.

Scattering is unique in that the wave energy is generally deflected in multiple directions that are difficult to predict or calculate. A great example of basic scattering is to think of the sun shining on you through a thin cover of clouds. Instead of hitting you directly, the sun’s light is weakened. This is because as the sun shines through the clouds, its light is scattered and only some of it ends up striking you.Of course, scattering is not limited to light.

Scattering can happen to many types of energy waves and is more pronounced in certain media.

Examples of Scattering

Of course, the best example of scattering is light being deflected as it passes through air that is filled with particles of some sort. The sun passing through clouds is a great way to think about this.

Scattering can happen in other instances, though, and some are very important for scientists to understand.One rather interesting example of scattering causes the sky to appear blue on a clear day. As the sun’s light enters our atmosphere, there is always a basic level of scattering caused by the composition of the air itself. As the different colors of light pass through the atmosphere, they are separated slightly.

The separated blue light is what generally strikes Earth during daytime hours, which is why we perceive the clear, daytime sky as blue.In the health sciences, there are applications of light and other electromagnetic waves that can make a huge difference in patients’ quality of care. Almost any time electromagnetic waves are used, doctors must be aware of scattering. X-rays, for example, undergo a certain amount of scattering, which has the potential to create problems in the captured image.

Technology has been created to minimize scattering, which improves this type of imaging and the quality of care patients receive.

Lesson Summary

Scattering occurs when light or other energy waves pass through an imperfect medium (such as air filled with particles of some sort) and are deflected from a straight path. A great example is when the sun’s rays pass through clouds. The light is deflected off of its straight path and scatters in many directions.In the same way, scattering is responsible for the blue color of the clear, daytime sky. The colors of light separate as the sun’s rays pass through the atmosphere, and blue is the color that reaches us.

In the health sciences, scattering must be considered in any imaging that uses electromagnetic waves. Without corrective technology or techniques, images could be distorted or even unusable.

Learning Outcome

After viewing this lesson, you should be able to define scattering and give examples of how it’s seen in everyday life.


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