Huygen's Principle

Huygens’ principle (Christaan Huygens, 1629-1695, published about 1690) describes how a wavefront moves in space. According to this principle, we imagine that each point on the wavefront acts as a point source that emits spherical wavelets. These wavelets travel with the velocity of light in the medium. At any later time, the total wavefront is the envelope that encloses all of these wavelets. That is, the tangent line that joins the front surface of each one of them. A simple example of how a plane wavefront moves is shown below:

Vocabulary

Huygen's principle

The same construction is used for a wavefront of any other shape. When a wave travels in a single medium at a constant speed, the Huygen’s construction preserves the general form of the wavefront. That is, spheres propagate and become larger spheres, cylinders become larger cylinders, etc.

If a portion of the wavefront enters a different medium (enters glass from air, for example), then the wavelets generated by each portion of the wavefront travel with the velocity that is appropriate for the medium that the wavefront is in. That is, the wavelets in the medium where the speed of the wave is less will have smaller radii than the wavelets in the original medium.

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