There should be a line of jokes that start “A physicist and an engineer walk into a bar…”. In my case I’m an engineer and my housemate is a physicist, so random conversations sometimes take interesting turns. Take the other day for example, as one does when talking she picked up a piece of aluminium extrusion that was sitting on our coffee table and turned it over in her hands. It has a hole down its centre and it’s natural to peer down it, at which point her attention was caught by the appearance of a series of concentric rings of light. Our conversation turned to the mechanism which might be causing this, and along the way took us into cameras, waveguides, and optical fibres.
The light reaching us after traveling along a straight narrow tube should at a cursory glance be traveling in a straight line, and indeed when I point the extrusion out of my window and look down it I can see a small segment of the tree in the distance I’ve pointed it at. It didn’t take us long to conclude that the concentric rings were successive reflections of the light coming into the end hole from off-centre angles.
In effect, the extrusion is a pinhole camera in which the image is projected onto the inside of a cylinder stretching away from the pinhole rather than onto a flat piece of film, and we were seeing the successive reflections of the resulting distorted image as they bounced to and fro down the tube towards us. It’s likely the imperfect mirror formed by the aluminium wall allowed us to see each image, as light was being diffused in our direction. Adding a piece of tape with a small pinhole at the end accentuated this effect, with the circles becoming much more sharply defined as the projected image became less blurry. Continue reading “The Light Guide Hiding In Your Extrusion”