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What happens when light strikes an object?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Visible light energy has different frequencies and we perceive these frequencies as different colors. When light strikes an object, one of two things can happen. That energy can either be absorbed, in which case it is later emitted as heat, or it can be re-emitted, or transmitted, back out. Which light frequencies get absorbed is determined by the frequency that the atoms and molecules in the object's material vibrate at. The combination of light frequencies that were not absorbed by the object make up the color we see when we look at it.

    Breaking down colors into something as boring as visible light spectrum takes some of the fun out of rainbows, bright orange sunsets and clouds that look like cotton candy. But in essence, a rainbow shows the light spectrum along its beautiful band, much like artists and fashion designers use color palettes or color wheels. It's not really the light that changes, but how our eyes interpret the various wavelengths that makes the colors look different. The strange part is that we can see the resulting colors, but not the waves that produce them.

    The colors we see after light strikes an object really depend on how the object selects which frequencies to absorb. That's up to the type of atoms in -- or on -- the object and the frequency of the light that hits these atoms [source: Physics Classroom]. Opaque objects such as clothes contain pigments with chemicals that help them absorb certain colors. Any color that the object cannot absorb is reflected by the object and is the color that we see when we look at it. Wearing a black shirt in the hot sun means you're absorbing all of the colors and none reflect back; try white instead to cool off. White reflects all of the colors.

    With transparent materials, we only see the colors that the object allows to be transmitted through and not absorbed by the material, so the concept is similar, except the light is transmitted instead of reflected.

    What is there is no light? If you're in a room that's plunged into darkness, every object appears black because there is no incident light, so no objects can reflect light -- that means they can't have any color.

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