Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Why is light pure energy?

Category: Physics      Published: January 12, 2015

artistic rendtion of quantum particle-wave duality
Artistic rendition of a photon (not physically accurate). Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Light is not pure energy. While it is true that light has no mass, this fact does not imply that light is pure energy. Light is composed of fundamental quantum objects called photons which we list alongside other fundamental quantum objects such as electrons and neutrinos. Each object on this list contains several different properties which determine how the object behaves. Mass and kinetic energy are only two of several properties that a fundamental quantum object can carry. Saying that light is "pure energy" would imply that light only carries the property of energy and no other properties, which is simply not true. A single photon, which is the smallest bit of light possible, carries the following properties:

As should be obvious, energy is just one of many properties that photons carry. Photons are much more than "pure energy". Photons can exist just fine without having mass since they carry many other properties to make them physically real. Note that many of the properties listed above are very closely related to each other. You could even argue that many of the properties listed above are not independent properties, but are simply slightly different ways of defining the other properties. For instance, the energy E of a photon equals its frequency f times a constant, E = hf. Similarly, the momentum p of a photon equals its wavevector k times a constant, p = ℏk. Also, the period T is just the inverse of the linear frequency f, T = 1/f, the wavelength λ is just the inverse of the wavevector magnitude k times 2π, λ = 2π/k, and the speed c is just the frequency times the wavelength, c = . Despite the possibility that some of the properties listed above can be seen as redundant, this does not change the fact that photons exhibit many more properties than just their energy.

There are also some properties that photons do not exhibit, simply by their nature of being photons. The following list denotes properties that photons do not have:

As we see, mass is just one of many properties that a fundamental object may or may not have. As such, the presence of mass does not confer on an object any extra degree of physical reality, even though mass is the property that we are most familiar with in everyday life. Furthermore, the absence of mass does not make an object any more "pure". We are so familiar with mass in everyday life that we may be tempted to say, "an object with no mass does not really exist." But this statement is false. The more accurate statement would be, "an object with no physically observable properties does not really exist." Since there are so many fundamental properties besides mass, we see that objects can exist just fine without it. Again, the lack of mass does not automatically imply that the object is pure energy, since there are so many other properties involved. Note that mass is actually just another form of energy. The total energy of a fundamental object is its mass energy plus its kinetic energy (note that potential energy is held by systems of objects and not by single objects).

Interestingly, if we combine many photons into a beam of light, we can encode information such as images in the pattern of the photons. Each of the photon's properties listed above can be exploited to carry information. For instance, human eyes, conventional cameras, and traditional space telescopes extract photon position and frequency (color) information from a group of photons in order to form images. Radio antennas vary the frequency (FM) or the photon count (AM) along the length of the radio waves that they create in order to encode information. Interferometers such as used in some space telescopes measure the phase properties of the photons in a beam to extract information about the source that created the beam. A light field camera extracts photon position, frequency, and wavevector directionality from a group of photons in order to capture three-dimensional photographs. If light was just "pure energy", then human eyes, cameras, radio antennas, and space telescopes would not function.

If you liked my explanation, then you'll love my new book: The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers. Check it out! This book has been years in the making, but it's finally available. It contains detailed, highly accurate, surprising answers to science questions like this one that you just read. It includes a substantial amount of original content that can only be found in the book.

Topics: energy, frequency, kinetic energy, light, mass, momentum, phase, photon, pure energy, speed of light, wavelength, wavevector