How do we take the finite bandwidth of a practical ``monochromatic'' light source into account in our analysis? In fact, all we need to do is to assume that the phase angle, , appearing in Equations (993) and (1007), is only constant on timescales much less that the lifetime, , of the associated excited atomic state, and is subject to abrupt random changes on timescales much greater than . We can understand this phenomenon as being due to the fact that the radiation emitted by a single atom has a fixed phase angle, , but only lasts a finite time period, , combined with the fact that there is generally no correlation between the phase angles of the radiation emitted by different atoms. Alternatively, we can account for the variation in the phase angle in terms of the finite bandwidth of the light source. To be more exact, because the light emitted by the source consists of a superposition of sinusoidal waves of frequencies extending over the range to , even if all the component waves start off in phase, the phases will be completely scrambled after a time period has elapsed. In effect, what we are saying is that a practical monochromatic light source is temporally coherent on timescales much less than its characteristic coherence time, (which, for visible light, is typically of order seconds), and temporally incoherent on timescales much greater than . Incidentally, two waves are said to be coherent if their phase difference is constant in time, and incoherent if their phase difference varies significantly in time. In this case, the two waves in question are the same wave observed at two different times.
What effect does the temporal incoherence of a practical monochromatic light source on timescales greater than seconds have on the two-slit interference patterns discussed in the previous section? Consider the case of oblique incidence. According to Equation (1008), the phase angles, , and , of the cylindrical waves emitted by each slit are subject to abrupt random changes on timescales much greater than , because the phase angle, , of the plane wave that illuminates the two slits is subject to identical changes. Nevertheless, the relative phase angle, , between the two cylindrical waves remains constant. Moreover, according to Equation (1009), the interference pattern appearing on the projection screen is produced by the phase difference between the two cylindrical waves at a given point on the screen, and this phase difference only depends on the relative phase angle. Indeed, the intensity of the interference pattern is . Hence, the fact that the relative phase angle, , between the two cylindrical waves emitted by the slits remains constant on timescales much longer than the characteristic coherence time, , of the light source implies that the interference pattern generated in a conventional two-slit interference apparatus is unaffected by the temporal incoherence of the source. Strictly speaking, however, the preceding conclusion is only accurate when the spatial extent of the light source is negligible. Let us now broaden our discussion to take spatially extended light sources into account.
Up until now, we have assumed that our two-slit interference apparatus is illuminated by a single plane wave, such as might be generated by a line source located at infinity. Let us now consider a more realistic situation in which the light source is located a finite distance from the slits, and also has a finite spatial extent. Figure 67 shows the simplest possible case. Here, the slits are illuminated by two identical line sources, and , that are a distance apart, and a perpendicular distance from the opaque screen containing the slits. Assuming that , the light incident on the slits from source is effectively a plane wave whose direction of propagation subtends an angle with the -axis. Likewise, the light incident on the slits from source is a plane wave whose direction of propagation subtends an angle with the -axis. Moreover, the net interference pattern (i.e., wavefunction) appearing on the projection screen is the linear superposition of the patterns generated by each source taken individually (because light propagation is ultimately governed by a linear wave equation with superposable solutions--see Section 8.2.). Let us determine whether these patterns reinforce, or interfere with, one another.
The light emitted by source has a phase angle, , that is constant on timescales much less than the characteristic coherence time of the source, , but is subject to abrupt random changes on timescale much longer than . Likewise, the light emitted by source has a phase angle, , that is constant on timescales much less than , and varies significantly on timescales much greater than . In general, there is no correlation between and . In other words, our composite light source, consisting of the two line sources and , is both temporally and spatially incoherent on timescales much longer than .
Again working in the limit , with , Equation (1010) yields the following expression for the wavefunction at the projection screen:
Suppose that our light source consists of a regularly spaced array of very many identical incoherent line sources, filling the region between the sources and in Figure 67. In other words, suppose that our light source is a uniform incoherent source of angular extent . As is readily demonstrated, the associated interference pattern is obtained by averaging expression (1016) over all values in the range 0 to : that is, by operating on this expression with . In this manner, we obtain
We conclude that a spatially extended incoherent light source only generates a visible interference pattern in a conventional two-slit interference apparatus when the angular extent of the source is sufficiently small that
The whole of the preceding discussion is premised on the assumption that an extended light source is both temporally and spatially incoherent on timescales much longer than a typical atomic coherence time, which is about seconds. This is generally the case. However, there is one type of light source--namely, a laser--for which this is not necessarily the case. In a laser (in single-mode operation), excited atoms are stimulated in such a manner that they emit radiation that is both temporally and spatially coherent on timescales much longer than the relevant atomic coherence time.
Let us consider the two-slit far-field interference pattern generated by an extended coherent light source of angular extent . In this case, as is readily demonstrated (see Exercise 2), Equation (1017) is replaced by