What’s the application? Holograms are images of objects that appear three-dimensional– if you move your head as you look at a hologram, you will see the usual parallax effects, unlike a normal photograph, which is fixed. So, if your hologram includes one object that is partly behind another object, you can see around the obstruction by moving a bit to the side, just as you would if the original objects were in front of you.

What problem(s) is it the solution to? 1) “How can we jazz up flat images and make them look more lifelike?” 2) “How can we make credit cards harder to copy?”

How does it work? The key to holography is the interference of light. The simplest sort of hologram to make is a transmission hologram, which works very nicely to illustrate the key ideas, as in this image from HyperPhysics:

i-59fdbf032bab5ecea562cc4fa368d6e7-holo1.gif

To make a transmission hologram, you split the beam from your laser, and use half of it to illuminate your object, while the other half falls directly on the film. The two different beams will interfere with each other, and what you record on the film will be the interference pattern, rather than a normal image of the scene. If you look directly at the film, you will just see a pattern of stripes and whorls that doesn’t look like much of anything.

If, rather than looking directly at the developed film, you shine a laser onto the film from the same angle as the beam that directly illuminated it in the original set-up, though, the light from the laser will diffract off the interference pattern, and what you end up with on the far side of the film will be identical to the light from the other beam, the one that was illuminating the object. Which means that somebody on that side of the film looking back through it will see an image of the object that was originally present, as if it were still there, and illuminated by the laser being used to project the image.

This diffracted light has all of the characteristics of the original light, including the phases and everything. Which means that it recreates the full pattern of the original light in the cone of the beam, including the parallax effects and all that. So you get a complete three-dimensional image.

With a slightly different arrangement of components, you can make a reflection hologram, and you can convert one of those into a rainbow hologram that doesn’t require coherent light to make it work. Which leads to all those shiny rainbow hologram stickers and holograms on credit cards and currency.

Why are lasers essential? In order to get a clean interference pattern, you need a coherent source of light. That is, the waves that are directly illuminating the film need to have basically the same phase as the waves that are bouncing off the object– in the absence of the object, the question of whether the peaks line up to give you constructive interference should only depend on the lengths of the two different paths they followed to the film.

In an incoherent source like a lamp, the phase of the light fluctuates rapidly and randomly. That means that the interference pattern you get changes from one nanosecond to the next, and unless you’re absurdly careful about setting things up, you’ll just get a big smear on the film. A laser has vastly better coherence properties, and will give you a steady pattern, provided your paths are reasonably similar in length.

You could make a hologram using heavily filtered light from a lamp, and extraordinary care, but you really don’t want to do it that way. A laser turns it into something that can be done as a lab for non-science majors.

Why is it cool? Dude, it’s a three-dimensional image!

Also, because it is an interference phenomenon, the pattern at any given point on the film depends on light from all parts of the illuminated object. Which means that any piece of the image contains the whole picture. This makes holography a very robust image-storing method, and also provides the hook for a really good William Gibson story.

(The “every part contains the whole” aspect is also what inspired yesterday’s optics quiz. It’s not exactly the same, but the end effect is somewhat similar, and for a similar reason– just as the light that makes up an image from a lens passes through all parts of the lens, the light that produces the interference pattern at the hologram film comes from all parts of the illuminated object.)

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Holograms are sufficiently cool that Dennis Gabor won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the technique.

Why isn’t it cool enough? It’s still a bit of a hassle to make holograms, and their use is somewhat limited. It hasn’t yet led to the three-dimensional home viewing systems that I was promised by science fiction stories when I was a kid. No matter what cheesy effects CNN may use.

Comments

  1. #1 Kate Nepveu
    April 16, 2010

    recreates the full pattern of the original light in the cone of the beam

    Yeah, that’s pretty damn cool.

  2. #2 Josh
    April 16, 2010

    Despite your detailed and well written description, I am going to go on believing that holograms are simply magic because it’s easier >_>

  3. #3 Steven Colyer
    April 16, 2010

    Click here Chad for a most interesting recent use (interpretation?) of Holography, maybe, according to arXiv.

    I would also ask, in your best understanding, when will we see “Holography Sets” like R2D2 gives us of Princess Leia saying “Help us Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope…” in the first Star Wars film?

  4. #4 Cory
    April 16, 2010

    I believe that the security holograms you see on credit cards and such are actually transmission holograms, but with a reflective backing allowing them to be viewed in reflection. Actual reflection holograms usually appear black where there is no image, as opposed to the silver background seen on credit card holograms.

  5. #5 Tim Eisele
    April 16, 2010

    Speaking of holograms, did you ever see the method for making “scratch holograms”? They are drawn by hand, no laser.

    http://amasci.com/amateur/hand1.html

    Of course, it is debatable whether they are really holograms, but they do generate a recognizable 3-D image. I’ve drawn them myself on pieces of scrap plexiglass, it does work.

  6. #6 Alan
    April 16, 2010

    I just covered holography in my non-majors course on light today. I used the geometrical model developed by T.H. Jeong. See his article: “Geometric model for holography,” American Journal of Physics, Volume 43, Issue 8 (1975), pp. 714-717. I adapted his figures to describe reflection holograms because most of my students did that as an extra credit activity in the previous week. We used a simple kit from Integraf (Jeong’s company). Everyone had a lot of fun!

  7. #7 Jeff Davis
    April 17, 2010

    Holograms may be intended to improve credit card security, but in fact they’re easy to clone. This is from Wired in 2007: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/multimedia/2007/02/72664

  8. #8 melissa
    April 23, 2010

    Thank you for getting this mostly right! Holography is used to describe many things that are not holographic and its frustrating to those of us who understand the true potential of this REAL 3D technology.

  9. #9 tom cruise
    June 1, 2010

    i want to make a simple hologram for science fair.so if you can guide me how to do it,i shall be very thankful to you..

  10. #10 roger lebeau
    June 12, 2010

    For those of you who ever desired to create their own holograms. The ultimate “how to” guide is available.
    Imagine projecting images on the ceiling of your room, impressing your friends.
    Check out my link! You definitely will not regret it!

  11. #11 gaurav
    December 29, 2010

    really amazing