Post-classical Latin prisma solid geometrical figure (5th cent.) < ancient Greek πρῖσμα sawdust, in Hellenistic Greek also (in geometry) prism (Euclid) < πρίζειν to saw or something sawed rare parallel form to πρίειν
- 1. Geometry: A solid figure with two end faces that are similar, equal, and parallel rectilinear figures, and whose sides are parallelograms or rectangles.
- 2. Optics: A transparent object in the form of a geometrical prism; esp. a right prism whose ends are identical acute-angled triangles, used for refracting light that passes through the sides.
- 3. A spectrum as produced by refraction through a prism. In pl.: prismatic colors.
In optics, a prism is a transparent optical element with flat, polished surfaces that refract light. The exact angles between the surfaces depend on the application. The traditional geometrical shape is that of a triangular prism with a triangular base and rectangular sides, and in colloquial use "prism" usually refers to this type. Some types of optical prism are not in fact in the shape of geometric prisms. Prisms are typically made out of glass, but can be made from any material that is transparent to the wavelengths for which they are designed.
A prism can be used to break light up into its constituent spectral colors (the colors of the rainbow). Prisms can also be used to reflect light, or to split light into components with different polarizations.
In Isaac Newton's time, it was believed that white light was colorless, and that the prism itself produced the color. Newton's experiments convinced him that all the colors already existed in the light in a heterogeneous fashion, and that "corpuscles" (particles) of light were fanned out because particles with different colors traveled with different speeds through the prism. It was only later that Young and Fresnel combined Newton's particle theory with Huygen's wave theory to show that color is the visible manifestation of light's wavelength.
Newton arrived at his conclusion by passing the red color from one prism through a second prism and found the color unchanged. From this, he concluded that the colors must already be present in the incoming light — thus, the prism did not create colors, but merely separated colors that are already there. He also used a lens and a second prism to recompose the spectrum back into white light. This experiment has become a classic example of the methodology introduced during the scientific revolution. The results of this experiment dramatically transformed the field of metaphysics, leading to John Locke's primary vs secondary quality distinction.
Isaac Newton discussed prism dispersion in great detail in his book Opticks. He also introduced the use of more than one prism to control dispersion. Newton's description of his experiments on prism dispersion was qualitative, and is quite readable. A quantitative description of multiple-prism dispersion was not needed until multiple prism laser beam expanders were introduced in the 1980s.