Edexcel A Level Physics

Revision Notes

5.25 Diffraction

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Diffraction is the spreading out of waves when they pass an obstruction

Diffraction through a gap

  • This obstruction is typically a narrow gap (a slit, or aperture)

Diffraction Wavefronts

  • Diffraction is usually represented by a wavefront as shown by the vertical lines in the diagrams above
  • The only property of a wave that changes when its diffracted is its amplitude
    • This is because some energy is dissipated when a wave is diffracted through a gap

Diffraction around an obstacle

  • The diffraction pattern for a large slit can be thought of as a wave passing two completely separate obstacles
    • This shows that when a wave meets an obstacle a diffraction pattern forms around the edges.
    • Behind the obstacle a ‘shadow’ forms where no part of the wave reaches

Factors that affect diffraction

  • The effects of diffraction are most prominent when the gap size or obstacle is approximately the same or smaller than the wavelength of the wave
    • As the size of the gap or obstacle increases, the effect gradually gets less pronounced
    • When the gap is much larger than the wavelength, the waves are no longer spread out

 Diffraction gap size, downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

The size of the gap (compared to the wavelength) affects how much the waves spread out

Explaining diffraction

  • Huygens developed a model for wave propagation which suggested that every point on a wavefront can be considered to be a point source of secondary waves (which he called wavelets)
    • This leads to a diagram, called Huygens’ construction, which shows that new wavefronts are tangential to the secondary wavelets
    • The tangents create the curve of the new wavefront emerging either through the gap or around the obstacle 


When a wave meets an obstacle a diffraction pattern forms around the edges, with a ‘shadow’ created behind the obstacle where no part of the wave reaches

Huygens' Construction for Diffraction Through a Gap 


Those point sources which pass through the gap create new wavelets on the other side, leading to the characteristic curved shape of the diffracted wave

Huygens' Construction for Diffraction Around an Obstacle 


Those point sources which pass around the obstacle create new wavelets on the other side, leaving empty space where the 'shadow' is seen

Worked example

When a wave is travelling through air, which scenario best demonstrates diffraction?

A.   UV radiation through a gate post

B.   Sound waves passing a steel rod

C.   Radio waves passing between human hair

D.   X-rays passing through atoms in a crystalline solid

Answer:    D

  • Diffraction is most prominent when the wavelength is close to the aperture size
  • UV waves have a wavelength between 4 × 10-7 – 1 × 10-8 m so won’t be diffracted by a gate post
  • Sound waves have a wavelength of 1.72 × 10-2 – 17 m so would not be diffracted by the diffraction grating
  • Radio waves have a wavelength of 0.1 – 106 m so would not be diffracted by human hair
  • X-rays have a wavelength of 1 × 10-8 – 4 × 10-13 m which is roughly the gap between atoms in a crystalline solid
    • Therefore, the correct answer is D

Exam Tip

When drawing diffracted waves, take care to keep the wavelength constant. It is only the amplitude of the wave that changes when diffracted.

Huygen's diagrams can be tricky to draw, so are definitely worth practicing.

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Lindsay Gilmour

Author: Lindsay Gilmour

Lindsay graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Greenwich and earned her Science Communication MSc at Imperial College London. Now with many years’ experience as a Head of Physics and Examiner for A Level and IGCSE Physics (and Biology!), her love of communicating, educating and Physics has brought her to Save My Exams where she hopes to help as many students as possible on their next steps.