11 Motivating Context for Unit II

Homework Assignment

The full homework assignment for this unit can be found at this link. The problems here are numbered the same as in that assignment.



A Venn-diagram showing the different sciences

This unit will focus on how light (and in some cases electrons) travel through both empty space and matter as well as how those interactions can be used to manipulate the paths and make . The most familiar optical system to most of you is the one you are probably using to read these very words: your eyes! We will therefore be looking at the eye quite a bit throughout this unit, both human eyes and simpler eyes in the animal kingdom. Another common biological application of optics is the microscope. To make sure that everyone is on the same page, you will find below some information about the anatomy of the human eye as well as some basic information about microscopes. Please be familiar with this terminology as we will use it in class.

The Human Eye. Derived from 36.5 Vision by OpenStax Biology

is the ability to detect light patterns from the outside environment and interpret them into images. Animals are bombarded with sensory information, and the sheer volume of visual information can be problematic. Fortunately, the visual systems of species have evolved to attend to the most-important stimuli. The importance of vision to humans is further substantiated by the fact that about one-third of the human cerebral cortex is dedicated to analyzing and perceiving visual information.

Anatomy of the Eye

The photoreceptive cells of the eye, where the conversion of light to nervous impulses occurs, are located in the (shown in Figure 2) on the inner surface of the back of the eye. But light does not impinge on the retina unaltered. It passes through other layers that process it so that it can be interpreted by the retina (Figure 2b). The , the front transparent layer of the eye, and the crystalline , a transparent convex structure behind the cornea, both refract (bend) light to focus the image on the retina. The , which is conspicuous as the colored part of the eye, is a circular muscular ring lying between the lens and cornea that regulates the amount of light entering the eye. In conditions of high ambient light, the iris contracts, reducing the size of the at its center. In conditions of low light, the iris relaxes and the pupil enlarges.
Cross section of the human eye.
Figure 2. (a) The human eye is shown in cross section. (b) A blowup shows the layers of the retina.

Changes in material are crucial to image formation using lenses. Each material has an index of refraction which will be discussed in The Ray Aspect of Light: The Speed of Light in Materials. The biggest change in material, and consequently the biggest bending of rays, actually occurs at the cornea rather than the lens. The cornea provides about two-thirds of the power of the eye, owing to the fact that speed of light changes considerably while traveling from air into cornea. The lens provides the remaining power needed to produce an image on the retina. The cornea and lens can be treated as a single thin lens, even though the light rays pass through several layers of material (such as cornea, aqueous humor, several layers in the lens, and vitreous humor), changing direction at each interface. The image formed is much like the one produced by a single convex lens.

The goal of the cornea and lens is to focus light on the retina and, in particular, the fovea centralis. The fovea centralis is a small, central pit composed of closelpacked cones in the eye. The fovea is responsible for sharp central vision, which is necessary in humans for activities for which visual detail is of primary importance, such as reading and driving. The lens is dynamic, focusing and re-focusing light as the eye rests on near and far objects in the visual field. The lens is operated by muscles that stretch it flat or allow it to thicken, changing the focal length of light coming through it to focus it sharply on the retina. With age comes the loss of the flexibility of the lens, and a form of farsightedness called results. Presbyopia occurs because the image focuses behind the retina. Presbyopia is a deficit similar to a different type of farsightedness called caused by an eyeball that is too short. For both defects, images in the distance are clear but images nearby are blurry. (nearsightedness) occurs when an eyeball is elongated and the image focus falls in front of the retina. In this case, images in the distance are blurry but images nearby are clear.

There are two types of photoreceptors in the retina: and , named for their general appearance as illustrated in . Rods are strongly photosensitive and are located in the outer edges of the retina. They detect dim light and are used primarily for peripheral and nighttime vision. Cones are weakly photosensitive and are located near the center of the retina. They respond to bright light, and their primary role is in daytime, color vision.

Rods and Cones of the eye.
Figure 3. Rods and cones are photoreceptors in the retina. Rods respond in low light and can detect only shades of gray. Cones respond in intense light and are responsible for color vision. (credit: modification of work by Piotr Sliwa)

The is the region in the center back of the eye that is responsible for acute vision. The fovea has a high density of cones. When you bring your gaze to an object to examine it intently in bright light, the eyes orient so that the object’s image falls on the fovea. However, when looking at a star in the night sky or other object in dim light, the object can be better viewed by the peripheral vision because it is the rods at the edges of the retina, rather than the cones at the center, that operate better in low light. In humans, cones far outnumber rods in the fovea.


Transduction of Light

The rods and cones are the site of transduction of light to a neural signal. Both rods and cones contain photopigments. In vertebrates, the main photopigment, , has two main parts (Figure 4) an opsin, which is a membrane protein (in the form of a cluster of α-helices that span the membrane), and retinal—a molecule that absorbs light. When light hits a photoreceptor, it causes a shape change in the retinal, altering its structure from a bent (cis) form of the molecule to its linear (trans) isomer. This isomerization of retinal activates the rhodopsin, starting a cascade of events that ends with the closing of Na+ channels in the membrane of the photoreceptor. Thus, unlike most other sensory neurons (which become depolarized by exposure to a stimulus) visual receptors become hyperpolarized and thus driven away from threshold (Figure 5).

Changes of proteins in the eye.
Figure 4. (a) Rhodopsin, the photoreceptor in vertebrates, has two parts: the trans-membrane protein opsin, and retinal. When light strikes retinal, it changes shape from (b) a cis to a trans form. The signal is passed to a G-protein called transducin, triggering a series of downstream events.


Protein in the eye
Figure 5. When light strikes rhodopsin, the G-protein transducin is activated, which in turn activates phosphodiesterase. Phosphodiesterase converts cGMP to GMP, thereby closing sodium channels. As a result, the membrane becomes hyperpolarized. The hyperpolarized membrane does not release glutamate to the bipolar cell.

Trichromatic Coding

There are three types of cones (with different photopsins), and they differ in the wavelength to which they are most responsive, as shown in Figure 6 . Some cones are maximally responsive to short light waves of 420 nm, so they are called S cones (“S” for “short”); others respond maximally to waves of 530 nm (M cones, for “medium”); a third group responds maximally to light of longer wavelengths, at 560 nm (L, or “long” cones). With only one type of cone, color vision would not be possible, and a two-cone (dichromatic) system has limitations. Primates use a three-cone (trichromatic) system, resulting in full color vision. The color we perceive is a result of the ratio of activity of our three types of cones. The colors of the visual spectrum, running from long-wavelength light to short, are red (700 nm), orange (600 nm), yellow (565 nm), green (497 nm), blue (470 nm), indigo (450 nm), and violet (425 nm). Humans have very sensitive perception of color and can distinguish about 500 levels of brightness, 200 different hues, and 20 steps of saturation, or about 2 million distinct colors.

Absorbance of eye cones.
Figure 6. Human rod cells and the different types of cone cells each have an optimal wavelength. However, there is considerable overlap in the wavelengths of light detected.

Retinal Processing

Visual signals leave the cones and rods, travel to the bipolar cells, and then to ganglion cells. A large degree of processing of visual information occurs in the retina itself, before visual information is sent to the brain.

Photoreceptors in the retina continuously undergo . That is, they are always slightly active even when not stimulated by light. In neurons that exhibit tonic activity, the absence of stimuli maintains a firing rate at a baseline; while some stimuli increase firing rate from the baseline, and other stimuli decrease firing rate. In the absence of light, the bipolar neurons that connect rods and cones to ganglion cells are continuously and actively inhibited by the rods and cones. Exposure of the retina to light hyperpolarizes the rods and cones and removes their inhibition of bipolar cells. The now active bipolar cells in turn stimulate the ganglion cells, which send action potentials along their axons (which leave the eye as the optic nerve). Thus, the visual system relies on change in retinal activity, rather than the absence or presence of activity, to encode visual signals for the brain. Sometimes horizontal cells carry signals from one rod or cone to other photoreceptors and to several bipolar cells. When a rod or cone stimulates a horizontal cell, the horizontal cell inhibits more distant photoreceptors and bipolar cells, creating lateral inhibition. This inhibition sharpens edges and enhances contrast in the images by making regions receiving light appear lighter and dark surroundings appear darker. Amacrine cells can distribute information from one bipolar cell to many ganglion cells.

You can demonstrate this using an easy demonstration to “trick” your retina and brain about the colors you are observing in your visual field. Look fixedly at Figure 7 for about 45 seconds. Then quickly shift your gaze to a sheet of blank white paper or a white wall. You should see an afterimage of the Norwegian flag in its correct colors. At this point, close your eyes for a moment, then reopen them, looking again at the white paper or wall; the afterimage of the flag should continue to appear as red, white, and blue. What causes this? According to an explanation called opponent process theory, as you gazed fixedly at the green, black, and yellow flag, your retinal ganglion cells that respond positively to green, black, and yellow increased their firing dramatically. When you shifted your gaze to the neutral white ground, these ganglion cells abruptly decreased their activity and the brain interpreted this abrupt downshift as if the ganglion cells were responding now to their “opponent” colors: red, white, and blue, respectively, in the visual field. Once the ganglion cells return to their baseline activity state, the false perception of color will disappear.


Optical illusion.
Figure 7. View this flag to understand how retinal processing works. Stare at the center of the flag (indicated by the white dot) for 45 seconds, and then quickly look at a white background, noticing how colors appear.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Physics 132: What is an Electron? What is Light? by Roger Hinrichs, Paul Peter Urone, Paul Flowers, Edward J. Neth, William R. Robinson, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley, Julianne Zedalis, John Eggebrecht, and E.F. Redish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book