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Diffraction refers to various phenomena which occur when a wave encounters an obstacle or a slit. In classical physics, the diffraction phenomenon is described as the interference of waves according to the Huygens–Fresnel principle. These characteristic behaviors are exhibited when a wave encounters an obstacle or a slit that is comparable in size to its wavelength. Similar effects occur when a light wave travels through a medium with a varying refractive index, or when a sound wave travels through a medium with varying acoustic impedance. Diffraction occurs with all waves, including sound waves, water waves, and electromagnetic waves such as visible light, X-rays and radio waves.

Since physical objects have wave-like properties (at the atomic level), diffraction also occurs with matter and can be studied according to the principles of quantum mechanics. Italian scientist Francesco Maria Grimaldi coined the word "diffraction" and was the first to record accurate observations of the phenomenon in 1660.

While diffraction occurs whenever propagating waves encounter such changes, its effects are generally most pronounced for waves whose wavelength is roughly comparable to the dimensions of the diffracting object or slit. If the obstructing object provides multiple, closely spaced openings, a complex pattern of varying intensity can result. This is due to the addition, or interference, of different parts of a wave that travels to the observer by different paths, where different path lengths result in different phases (see diffraction grating and wave superposition). The formalism of diffraction can also describe the way in which waves of finite extent propagate in free space. For example, the expanding profile of a laser beam, the beam shape of a radar antenna and the field of view of an ultrasonic transducer can all be analyzed using diffraction equations.


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