In physics, interference is the addition (superposition) of two or more waves that result in a new wave pattern.

As most commonly used, the term interference usually refers to the interaction of waves which are correlated or coherent with each other, either because they come from the same source or because they have the same or nearly the same frequency.

Two non-monochromatic waves are only fully coherent with each other if they both have exactly the same range of wavelengths and the same phase differences at each of the constituent wavelengths.

The total phase difference is derived from the sum of both the path difference and the initial phase difference (if the waves are generated from 2 or more different sources). It can then be concluded whether the waves reaching a point are "in phase" (constructive interference) or "out of phase" (destructive interference).


The principle of superposition of waves states that the resultant displacement at a point is equal to the vector sum of the displacements of different waves at that point. If a crest of a wave meets a crest of another wave at the same point then the crests interfere "constructively" and the resultant wave amplitude is greater. If a crest of a wave meets a trough of another wave then they interfere "destructively", and the overall amplitude is decreased.

This form of interference can occur whenever a wave can propagate from a source to a destination by two or more paths of different length. Two or more sources can only be used to produce interference when there is a fixed phase relation between them, but in this case the interference generated is the same as with a single source; see Huygens' principle.


Thomas Young's double-slit experiment showed interference phenomena where two beams of light which are coherent interfere to produce a pattern.

The beams of light both have the same wavelength range and at the center of the interference pattern. They have the same phases at each wavelength, as they both come from the same source.

Interference patterns

For two coherent sources, the spatial separation between sources is half the wavelength times the number of nodal lines.

Light from any source can be used to obtain interference patterns, for example, Newton's rings can be produced with sunlight. However, in general white light is less suited for producing clear interference patterns, as it is a mix of a full spectrum of colours, that each have different spacing of the interference fringes. Sodium light is close to monochromatic and is thus more suitable for producing interference patterns. The most suitable is laser light because it is almost perfectly monochromatic.

Constructive and destructive interference

Consider two waves that are in phase,with amplitudes "A"1 and "A"2. Their troughs and peaks line up and the resultant wave will have amplitude "A" = "A"1 + "A"2. This is known as constructive interference.

If the two waves are π radians, or 180°, out of phase, then one wave's crests will coincide with another wave's troughs and so will tend to cancel out. The resultant amplitude is "A" = |"A"1 − "A"2|. If "A"1 = "A"2, the resultant amplitude will be zero. This is known as destructive interference.

When two sinusoidal waves superimpose, the resulting waveform depends on the frequency (or wavelength) amplitude and relative phase of the two waves. If the two waves have the same amplitude "A" and wavelength the resultant waveform will have an amplitude between 0 and 2"A" depending on whether the two waves are in phase or out of phase.

General quantum interference

If a system is in state psi its wavefunction is described in Dirac or bra-ket notation as:

: |psi ang = sum_i |i ang psi_i

where the |i angs specify the different quantum "alternatives" available (technically, they form an eigenvector basis) and the psi_i are the probability amplitude coefficients, which are complex numbers.

The probability of observing the system making a transition or quantum leap from state Psi to a new state Phi is the square of the modulus of the scalar or inner product of the two states:

prob(psi Rightarrow phi) = |lang psi |phi ang|^2 = |sum_ipsi^*_i phi_i |^2 == sum_{ij} psi^*_i psi_j phi^*_jphi_i= sum_{i} |psi_i|^2|phi_i|^2 + sum_{ij;i e j} psi^*_i psi_j phi^*_jphi_i

where psi_i = lang i|psi ang (as defined above) and similarly phi_i = lang i|phi ang are the coefficients of the final state of the system. * is the complex conjugate so that psi_i^* = lang psi|i ang , etc.

Now let's consider the situation classically and imagine that the system transited from |psi ang to |phi ang via an intermediate state |i ang. Then we would "classically" expect the probability of the two-step transition to be the sum of all the possible intermediate steps. So we would have

prob(psi Rightarrow phi) = sum_i prob(psi Rightarrow i Rightarrow phi) == sum_i |lang psi |i ang|^2|lang i|phi ang|^2 = sum_i|psi_i|^2 |phi_i|^2.

The classical and quantum derivations for the transition probability differ by the presence, in the quantum case, of the extra terms sum_{ij;i e j} psi^*_i psi_j phi^*_jphi_i; these extra quantum terms represent "interference" between the different i e j intermediate "alternatives". These are consequently known as the quantum interference terms, or cross terms. This is a purely quantum effect and is a consequence of the non-additivity of the probabilities of quantum alternatives.

The interference terms vanish, via the mechanism of quantum decoherence, if the intermediate state |i ang is measured or coupled with the environmentWojciech H. Zurek, Decoherence and the transition from quantum to classical, "Physics Today", 44, pp 36-44 (1991)] Wojciech H. Zurek, Decoherence, einselection, and the quantum origins of the classical, "Reviews of Modern Physics" 2003, 75, 715 or [] ] .


A conceptually simple case of interference is a small (compared to wavelength) source - say, a small array of regularly spaced small sources (see diffraction grating).

Consider the case of a flat boundary (say, between two media with different densities or simply a flat mirror), onto which the plane wave is incident at some angle. In this case of continuous distribution of sources, constructive interference will only be in specular direction - the direction at which angle with the normal is exactly the same as the angle of incidence. Thus, this results in the law of reflection which is simply the result of constructive interference of a plane wave on a plane surface.

See also

* Active noise control
* Beat (acoustics)
* Coherence (physics)
* Diffraction
* Haidinger fringes
* Hong-Ou-Mandel effect
* Interferometer
* List of types of interferometers
* Lloyd's Mirror
* Moiré pattern
* Optical feedback
* Retroreflector


External links

* [ Expressions of position and fringe spacing]
* [ Java demonstration of interference]
* [ Java simulation of interference of water waves 1]
* [ Java simulation of interference of water waves 2]
* [ Flash animations demonstrating interference]

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  • Interference — Interférence Pour les articles homonymes, voir Interference (homonymie). Interférences d ondes planes lors de leur croisement …   Wikipédia en Français

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  • Interference — In ter*fer ence, n. [See {Interfere}.] [1913 Webster] 1. The act or state of interfering; as, the stoppage of a machine by the interference of some of its parts; a meddlesome interference in the business of others. [1913 Webster] 2. (Physics) The …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • Interference —   [engl.], Interferenz …   Universal-Lexikon

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