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Basic Laser Experiments
June 1971 Radio-Electronics

June 1971 Radio-Electronics

June 1971 Radio-Electronics Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Electronics, published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

RCA Helium-Selenium Laser (Zachary Fox) - RF Cafe

Original RCA photo owned by Zachary Fox.

Parenthetically mentioned in this introductory article on lasers is a "Mie" type particle. At first I thought maybe it was a typo, but in fact it refers to Mie scattering, which is the dispersion of electromagnetic waves by isolated spheres, stratified spheres, infinite cylinders, or other geometries where radial and angular dependence are independent. Two simple experiments are described for demonstrating light scattering and absorption similar to what occurs in the atmosphere. Whereas procuring the 2.5 mW laser source and to a lesser extent suitable light meter would have been difficult and expensive in 1971 when this was published in Radio-Electronics magazine, today's cheap equipment puts them within the budgets of almost anyone. Many of the <$10 cat toy lasers provide plenty of power. In fact, you have most likely already witnessed the light absorption phenomenon when using such a laser by noticing the scattering of dust particles in the air. To a large degree, the fascination with lasers has ebbed in the last half century since they have gone from science fiction wonders to having a ubiquitous presence in our lives.

RF Cafe visitor Zachary Fox sent me a note regarding this article. Mr. Fox is an avid laser experimenter / hobbyist who has a blog on the Laser Pointer Forum website where he documents his activities. He recently purchased a document containing the actual photograph shown in the article that shows RCA Solid State Research Laboratory scientist Dr. Karl G. Hernqvist projecting the 24 spectral lines of a helium-selenium laser onto his hand. What was a big deal in 1971 is ho−hum technology today, just like what is ground−breaking today will be ho−hum in 50 years. We should be grateful for people like Zachary who collect and preserve these parts of history so that someone with no interest doesn't throw it out with the trash.

Basic Laser Experiments

 - RF Cafe

Photo courtesy RCA Princeton Labs

By U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health

The following experiments demonstrate properties of light and other electromagnetic radiation using the laser. The experimenter is expected to be familiar with the classical elementary theory of light; therefore, explanations are kept to a minimum. The experiments produce effective demonstrations with minimum equipment and maximum safety.

Light detection and intensity measurements can be made with a photographic light meter, preferably one that uses a CdS (cadmium sulfide) detector. The light levels from a 2.5-mW laser will not overdrive the meter and used meters can be purchased in camera stores. The meter's response to light is not linear, however, and response must be calibrated against a more accurate standard.

Experiment 1 - Scattering of Light


When light passes through the atmosphere, it is scattered by the large number of gas molecules and particles that make up the atmosphere. Objects are visible only because of the light they scatter toward the viewers' eyes. For this reason (i.e., the lack of light scattered toward them) astronauts are largely in the dark when they travel in orbit beyond the earth's atmosphere. For this same reason, an observer may not see a laser beam headed across his path. On the other hand, if smoke is blown into the path of a laser beam, it immediately becomes visible.

Equipment Necessary for These Demonstrations:

1. Laser 

2. Display tank

3. Support for display tank

4. Milk

5. Aerosol room deodorizer or smoke source

6. Liquid detergent

7. Ink

8. Boiled or distilled water

9. Detector (CdS light meter with red filter)* see note below

10. Mirror

11. Pivot mount for mirror

12. Protractor

13. Ruler

14. Thick slab of glass

15. Prism (45° -45° -90°)

16. Polarizing filters (3)

17. Small test tubes

18. Quarter wave plates (2) doubly refracting, red

19. AgNO3

20. Single-slit diffraction aperture

21. Double-slit diffraction aperture

22. Circular diffraction aperture

23. Divergent lens

24. Hologram

25. White paper

26. Transmission grating

27. Razor blades

This mechanism of optical scattering varies with the size of the scattering particles. Particles such as smoke may be considered "large" if their radii approach the wavelength of the incident light. The scattering from such particles is referred to as large-particle (i.e., Mie) scattering. In this type of scattering the particles may be considered as opaque spheres which scatter according to the principles of the diffraction theory. It is this type of scattering that can pose a potential hazard when high-powered lasers are used in the atmosphere.

Particles whose radii are much smaller than the wavelength of the incident light (radius < 0.05λ), scatter by a different mechanism called Rayleigh scattering. In this type of scattering, each microscopic particle acts as an electric dipole, reradiating the incident wave by electrically coupling into resonance with the electric field of the incident light. This type of scattering can be seen by observing different regions of the daylight sky through a polarizing filter.




Display tank

Boiled or distilled water


Smoke source or aerosol can


Experimental procedure:

Large particle or diffraction scattering

Direct the laser beam so it passes through the clean display tank filled with boiled or distilled water. The path of the beam will probably not be visible in the water. Add a small amount of homogenized milk to make the water turbid. The path will then become visible. Instead of milk, a concentrated solution of colloidal silica solution can be added to the water to make a permanent display solution. Large particle scattering can also be demonstrated by blowing smoke or the spray from an aerosol can into the path of the laser beam.

Experiment 2 - Absorption of Light


In passing through a material, laser light, like all electromagnetic radiation, undergoes absorption which can be expressed by the exponential relationship I = Ioe-μx, where μ is a function of the absorbing material and the wavelength of the light, and x is the thickness of the absorbing material. If a green piece of cellophane is placed in the path of a helium-neon laser beam (i.e. red light), there is a substantial reduction in the beam intensity. If, on the other hand, a red piece of cellopane is used with the same beam, relatively little absorption occurs. This principle of selective absorption of light from laser beams with given wavelengths is used in some of the commercially available protective goggles sold for use with lasers. This experiment demonstrates both quantitatively and qualitatively how the absorption of light depends upon the thickness of the absorber.




Display tank

Liquid detergent

Detector for measuring light intensity


Experimental Procedure:

Prepare a display solution by adding a few drops of a liquid detergent to water and stir until it is uniformly mixed. Fill the display tank with this solution and project the laser beam into the tank so that the path of the beam is clearly visible. Now add a drop or two of blue or black ink to the solution and stir until the solution is uniform. Notice how this causes beam intensity to decrease rapidly as it penetrates further into the solution. Continue to stir in ink a drop at a time until the beam vanishes (i.e. is completely absorbed) before it reaches the opposite end of the tank.

To make a quantitative measurement of the exponential absorption of light in a material, direct the laser beam onto a detector which measures light intensity or beam power. Record this value. Using various pieces of absorbing materials such as a semi-opaque plastic, insert one thickness at a time, gradually increasing the thickness of the material through which the laser beam passes. Record the light intensity for each value of the total thickness of the material and plot the data on semi-log paper. What is the shape of the line obtained? Why?



Posted April 17, 2019

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RF Cafe began life in 1996 as "RF Tools" in an AOL screen name web space totaling 2 MB. Its primary purpose was to provide me with ready access to commonly needed formulas and reference material while performing my work as an RF system and circuit design engineer. The World Wide Web (Internet) was largely an unknown entity at the time and bandwidth was a scarce commodity. Dial-up modems blazed along at 14.4 kbps while tying up your telephone line, and a nice lady's voice announced "You've Got Mail" when a new message arrived...

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