Science & Education

, Volume 27, Issue 1–2, pp 81–111 | Cite as

What Is Light?

Students’ Reflections on the Wave-Particle Duality of Light and the Nature of Physics
  • Ellen Karoline Henriksen
  • Carl Angell
  • Arnt Inge Vistnes
  • Berit Bungum


Quantum physics describes light as having both particle and wave properties; however, there is no consensus about how to interpret this duality on an ontological level. This article explores how pre-university physics students, while working with learning material focusing on historical-philosophical aspects of quantum physics, interpreted the wave-particle duality of light and which views they expressed on the nature of physics. A thematic analysis was performed on 133 written responses about the nature of light, given in the beginning of the teaching sequence, and 55 audio-recorded small-group discussions addressing the wave-particle duality, given later in the sequence. Most students initially expressed a wave and particle view of light, but some of these gave an “uncritical duality description”, accepting without question the two ontologically different descriptions of light. In the small-group discussions, students expressed more nuanced views. Many tried to reconcile the two descriptions using semi-classical reasoning; others entered into philosophical discussions about the status of the current scientific description of light and expected science to come up with a better model. Some found the wave description of light particularly challenging and lacked a conception of “what is waving”. Many seemed to implicitly take a realist view on the description of physical phenomena, contrary with the Copenhagen interpretation which is prevalent in textbooks. Results are discussed in light of different interpretations of quantum physics, and we conclude by arguing for a historical-philosophical perspective as an entry point for upper secondary physics students to explore the development and interpretation of quantum physical concepts.


Wave-particle duality Interpretation of quantum physics Nature of physics Upper secondary physics Nature of light 



The authors would like to thank participating students and teachers and the ReleQuant project group for their contributions.

Funding Information

This work was supported by a grant from the Research Council of Norway (project no 246723) and by the Olav Thon Foundation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest


  1. Abd-El-Khalick, F. (2012). Examining the sources for our understandings about science: Enduring conflations and critical issues in research on nature of science in science education. International Journal of Science Education, 34(3), 353–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, T., & Shattuck, J. (2012). Design-based research: a decade of progress in education research? Educational Researcher, 41(1), 16–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Angell, C., Guttersrud, Ø., Henriksen, E. K., & Isnes, A. (2004). Physics: frightful, but fun. Pupils’ and teachers’ views of physics and physics teaching. Science Education, 88(5), 683–706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arons, A., & Peppard, M. (1965). Einstein’s proposal of the photon concept—a translation of the Annalen der Physik paper of 1905. American Journal of Physics, 33(5), 367–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Aspect, A., Grangier, P., & Roger, G. (1989). Dualité onde-particule pour un photon unique. Journal of Optics, 20(3), 119-129.Google Scholar
  6. Ayene, M., Kriek, J., & Damtie, B. (2011). Wave-particle duality and uncertainty principle: Phenomenographic categories of description of tertiary physics students’ depictions. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 7(2), 020113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Baily, C., & Finkelstein, N. D. (2009). Development of quantum perspectives in modern physics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 5(1), 010106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Baily, C., & Finkelstein, N. D. (2010a). Refined characterization of student perspectives on quantum physics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 6(2), 020113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Baily, C., & Finkelstein, N. D. (2010b). Teaching and understanding of quantum interpretations in modern physics courses. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 6(1), 010101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Baily, C., & Finkelstein, N. D. (2014). Ontological flexibility and the learning of quantum mechanics. arXiv preprint arXiv:1409.8499.Google Scholar
  11. Bøe, M. V., & Henriksen, E. K. (2013). Love it or leave it: Norwegian students’ motivations and expectations for postcompulsory physics. Science Education, 97(4), 550–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bøe, M. V., Henriksen, E. K., & Angell, C. (2018). Actual vs. implied physics students: how students from traditional physics classrooms related to an innovative approach to quantum physics. Science Education.
  13. Bohr, N. (1928). The quantum postulate and the recent development of atomic theory. Nature, 121, 580–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bohr, N. (1961). Atomic theory and the description of nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bunge, M. (2003). Twenty-five centuries of quantum physics: from Pythagoras to us, and from subjectivism to realism. Science & Education, 12(5), 445–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bunge, M. (2012). Does quantum physics refute realism, materialism and determinism? Science & Education, 21(10), 1601–1610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Bungum, B., Henriksen, E. K., Angell, C., Tellefsen, C. W., & Bøe, M. V. (2015). ReleQuant—improving teaching and learning in quantum physics through educational design research. Nordic Studies in Science Education, 11(2), 153–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Bungum, B., Bøe, M. V., & Henriksen, E. K. (2018). How small-group discussions may enhance students’ understanding in quantum physics. Unpublished manuscript. NTNU. Trondheim.Google Scholar
  20. Camilleri, K. (2009). Constructing the myth of the Copenhagen interpretation. Perspectives on Science, 17(1), 26–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Carlone, H. B. (2004). The cultural production of science in reform-based physics: Girls’ access, participation, and resistance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(4), 392–414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cheng, M.-F., & Lin, J.-L. (2015). Investigating the relationship between students’ views of scientific models and their development of models. International Journal of Science Education, 37(15), 2453–2475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cheong, Y. W., & Song, J. (2014). Different levels of the meaning of wave-particle duality and a suspensive perspective on the interpretation of quantum theory. Science & Education, 23(5), 1011–1030.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Cini, M. (2003). How real is the quantum world? Science & Education, 12(5), 531–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Cordero, A. (2003). Understanding quantum physics. Science & Education, 12(5), 503–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Einstein, A. (1989). The collected papers of Albert Einstein, vol. 2. In J. Stachel (Ed.), The Swiss years: writings, 1900–1909. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Garritz, A. (2013). Teaching the philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry through controversies. Science & Education, 22(7), 1787–1807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gilbert, J. K. (2004). Models and modelling: routes to more authentic science education. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 2(2), 115–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gingras, Y. (2015). The creative power of formal analogies in physics: the case of Albert Einstein. Science & Education, 24(5–6), 529–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gjerland, M. (2015). Elevers oppfatning om lys og bølge/partikkel-dualismen (students’ understanding of light/wave dualism). Master’s thesis, NTNU, Trondheim.Google Scholar
  31. Greca, I. M., & Freire, O. (2003). Does an emphasis on the concept of quantum states enhance students’ understanding of quantum mechanics? Science & Education, 12(5), 541–557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Greca, I. M., & Freire Jr., O. (2014a). Meeting the challenge: quantum physics in introductory physics courses. In International handbook of research in history, philosophy and science teaching (pp. 183–209). Springer.Google Scholar
  33. Greca, I. M., & Freire Jr., O. (2014b). Teaching introductory quantum physics and chemistry: caveats from the history of science and science teaching to the training of modern chemists. Chemical Education Research and Practice, 15, 286–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hadzidaki, P. (2008). Quantum mechanics and ‘scientific explanation’—an explanatory strategy aiming at providing understanding. Science & Education, 17(1), 49–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Held, C. (1994). The meaning of complementarity. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 25(6), 871–893.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Henriksen, E. K., & Angell, C. (2010). The role of ‘talking physics’ in an undergraduate physics class using an electronic audience response system. Physics Education, 45(3), 278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Henriksen, E. K., Bungum, B., Angell, C., Tellefsen, C. W., Frågåt, T., & Bøe, M. V. (2014). Relativity, quantum physics and philosophy in the upper secondary curriculum: challenges, opportunities and proposed approaches. Physics Education, 49(6), 678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hubber, P. (2006). Year 12 students’ mental models of the nature of light. Research in Science Education, 36(4), 419–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ireson, G. (1999). A multivariate analysis of undergraduate physics students’ conceptions of quantum phenomena. European Journal of Physics, 20(3), 193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ireson, G. (2000). The quantum understanding of pre-university physics students. Physics Education, 35(1), 15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Karakostas, V., & Hadzidaki, P. (2005). Realism vs. constructivism in contemporary physics: the impact of the debate on the understanding of quantum theory and its instructional process. Science & Education, 14(7), 607–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kragh, H. (1992). A sense of history: history of science and the teaching of introductory quantum theory. Science & Education, 1(4), 349–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kragh, H., & Pedersen, S. A. (1992). Naturvidenskabens teori (the philosophy of science). Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck.Google Scholar
  44. Krijtenburg-Lewerissa, K., Pol, H. J., Brinkman, A., & van Joolingen, W. (2017). Insights into teaching quantum mechanics in secondary and lower undergraduate education. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 13(1), 010109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lautesse, P., Valls, A. V., Ferlin, F., Héraud, J.-L., & Chabot, H. (2015). Teaching quantum physics in upper secondary school in France. Science & Education, 24(7–8), 937–955.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lederman, N. G., & Lederman, J. S. (2014). Research on teaching and learning of nature of science. In N. G. Lederman & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education. Abingdon, England: Routledge.Google Scholar
  47. Lederman, N. G., Abd-El-Khalick, F., Bell, R. L., & Schwartz, R. S. (2002). Views of nature of science questionnaire: toward valid and meaningful assessment of learners’ conceptions of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(6), 497–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Levrini, O., Bertozzi, E., Gagliardi, M., Tomasini, N. G., Pecori, B., Tasquier, G., & Galili, I. (2014). Meeting the discipline-culture framework of physics knowledge: a teaching experience in Italian secondary school. Science & Education, 23(9), 1701–1731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lévy-Leblond, J. M. (2003). On the nature of Quantons. Science & Education, 12, 495–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mannila, K., Koponen, I. T., & Niskanen, J. A. (2001). Building a picture of students’ conceptions of wave-and particle-like properties of quantum entities. European Journal of Physics, 23(1), 45–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. McComas, W. F., Almazroa, H., & Clough, M. P. (1998). The nature of science in science education: an introduction. Science & Education, 7(6), 511–532.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McKagan, S., Perkins, K., & Wieman, C. (2010). Design and validation of the quantum mechanics conceptual survey. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 6(2), 020121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Myhrehagen, V. H., & Bungum, B. (2016). From the cat’s point of view: upper secondary physics students’ reflections on Schrödinger’s thought experiment. Physics Education, 51(5), 055009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. NDET (2006). Physics—programme subject in programmes for specialization in general studies. Retrieved from
  55. Newton, I. (1952). Opticks, or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of light. Courier Corporation.Google Scholar
  56. NGSS. (2013). Next generation science standards: for states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  57. Olsen, R. V. (2002). Introducing quantum mechanics in the upper secondary school: a study in Norway. International Journal of Science Education, 24(6), 565–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Planck, M. (1900). On the theory of the energy distribution law of the normal spectrum. In H. Kangro (Ed.), Planck’ original papers in quantum physics (pp. 38–45). London: Taylor and Francis.Google Scholar
  59. Renstrøm, R. (2011). Kvantefysikkens utvikling—i fysikklærebøker, vitenkapshistorien og undervisning [The development of quantum physics—in physics textbooks, in the history of science, and in the classroom]. Ph.D. thesis, University of Oslo.Google Scholar
  60. Vervoort, L., & Gingras, Y. (2015). Macroscopic oil droplets mimicking quantum behaviour: how far can we push an analogy? International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 29(3), 271–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. In: M. Cole (ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard.Google Scholar
  62. Young, T. (1804). The Bakerian lecture: experiments and calculations relative to physical optics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 94, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ellen Karoline Henriksen
    • 1
  • Carl Angell
    • 1
  • Arnt Inge Vistnes
    • 1
  • Berit Bungum
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PhysicsUniversity of OsloOsloNorway
  2. 2.Department of Teacher EducationNorwegian University of Science and TechnologyTrondheimNorway

Personalised recommendations