The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Optical speckle arises from the interference between random distributions of plane wave components, such as generated by light scattering from rough surfaces or propagating through turbid diffusers41. For example, when a laser is incident on an object such as ground glass or scattering screen, the transmitted or reflected light would be observed with fine-scale granular pattern

Huygens-Fresnel Principle

. According to the Huygens-Fresnel principle, the optical speckle resulting from scattering coherent light can be considered as the interference caused by different scattering points that act as individual new nearly-spherical wave sources. Since the solid angle subtended by the detecting system is sufficiently small, each spherical wave in the volume of space around the viewing aperture is approximated by a plane wave. Hence the plane-wave approximation is widely used to simulate the optical speckle mathematically. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Model the Optical Speckle

In this work we model the optical speckle as a superposition of a large number of plane waves with random phases and directions, as shown in Fig.1a. The intensity pattern of the speckle has a grainy appearance, where the bright spots and dark specks arise from the constructive and destructive interference respectively. In particular, the centre of each dark speck is a phase singularity, and in 3 dimensions these dark filaments thread themselves through the speckle field creating highly complicated networks of vortex lines and loops44,45,46.

Intuitively, the angular spectrum of light field can be mapped to direction space of wave vectors (k-space), i.e., with amplitude correspondence to the k-spectrum, where each point represents a plane wave, to which is assigned random transverse projected components (kx and ky), as shown in Fig.1b. The corresponding nonzero radial component \(k_{r} = \sqrt {k_{x}^{2} + k_{y}^{2} }\) produces a modification of average axial component \(\left\langle {k_{z} } \right\rangle = \sqrt {k_{0}^{2} – \left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle }\), where \(\left\langle {…} \right\rangle\) denotes the statistic expectation over the k-spectrum.

Figure 1
The propagation speed of optical speckle - Scientific Reports
The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Optical speckle in free space and k-space. (a) Superposition between a sufficiently large set of randomly phased and directed plane waves is an approximation to the optical speckle created by scattering a laser beam from a diffuser. (b) k-spectrum of optical speckle and the projection of one of the points in direction space of wave vectors. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Characterize the Propagation Speed

To characterize the propagation speed of optical speckle, we introduce the phase and group velocities which are averaged across all the wave components velocity which we have previously shown corresponds to the time the light or photons take to travel from plane to plane. Different from the conventional definition of group velocity47, the spatially average group velocity refers to the traveling energy envelope of a group of plane waves with a small spread in directions (i.e., spatial components in k-spectrum) rather than in frequencies or wavenumbers (i.e., temporal components in frequency spectrum).

The spatially averaged phase velocity is then given as \(v_{\phi } = c \cdot {{k_{0} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{k_{0} } {\left\langle {k_{z} } \right\rangle }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {\left\langle {k_{z} } \right\rangle }}\) by the average value of kz. For a structured beam in free-space it seems sensible that the average group velocity and phase velocity have the same relation as in the theory of hollow waveguides, i.e., \(v_{\phi } v_{g,z} = c^{2}\). The condition is best satisfied when we assume that the radial projection of wave vector kr in optical speckle analyzed here is independent on its angular frequency . The resultant spatially average group velocity along z is thus given as


We emphasize that the optical field considered here is quasi-chromatic, i.e., the frequencies of the wave group are clustered in a very narrow region around the main frequency. The field endowed with fixed \({k}_{r}\) still experiences group velocity dispersion (GVD) when the input beam is pulsed. This is another distinction between the effect of structured slow light and the group velocity control with spacetime wave packets, which results in dispersion-free propagation48, 49.

However, in the structured slow light the amount of GVD is insignificant compared with the differentiable group delay \(\tau_{DGD} = L\left| {\frac{1}{c} – \frac{1}{{v_{g} }}} \right|\) acquired by this pulse, where L is the axial propagation distance. It can be shown that for the pulse of spectral bandwidth of and spatial wavevector kr the ratio of pulse broadening to the differentiable group delay \(\tau_{DGD}\) is proportional to \(\frac{\Delta \omega }{{\omega_{0} }}\), which is at the quasi-monochromatic regime is negligible, i.e. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Optical Speckle

As introduced earlier, to experimentally generate an optical speckle with kr components that are independent of k0 requires diffractive elements, e.g., superposed grating patterns uploaded on SLM. For a single randomized plane wave produced by a hologram of grating pattern with fringe separation d, the resultant transverse components kx (ky) is 2/dx (2/dy), and kr is independent of wavelength. Each plane-wave hologram is assigned with three individual variables:

polar angle, azimuthal angle and phase offset, where the polar angles are distributed with a Gaussian profile, and both azimuthal angles and phase offsets are uniform noise. The resulting phase hologram uploaded on SLM comprises the wavevectors of optical speckle by combining the grating patterns.

Gaussian Density Distribution


To model such optical speckle numerically, we define a finite two-dimensional grid in transverse k-space, where each point describes a plane wave tilted by x and y with respect to the propagation axis. According to the central limit theorem51, the superpositions of infinitely many waves tend to Gaussian random functions52. The ensembles of plane harmonics are asymptotically Gaussian, which means that the probability density distribution of each tilted direction (x and y) follows a 2D Gaussian distribution, as shown in Fig.2a.

Our simulation for optical speckle is based on a superposition of 2000 plane waves randomly distributed in direction and phase, and each of which has a Gaussian amplitude in profile. Their distribution in k-space is subject to a Gaussian density distribution, characterized by a divergence of sin in free space, where is the standard deviation of the tilted angles of the wave vectors. A typical example for =5 is calculated in Fig.2b. The resultant intensity profile of the optical speckle in the far field is shown in Fig.2c. By performing 2D Fourier transform for the complex amplitude of the speckle field, its k-spectrum is obtained as shown in Fig.2d, where the coordinates are divided by the initial wavenumber k0.

It can be seen that the k-spectrum of optical speckle has a 2D Gaussian density envelope, which depends on the distribution of tilted directions of wave vectors in Fig.2b. More importantly, in the paraxial regime, the effect of light propagating over z in free space is simply a phase change in the components of its angular spectrum, and then since the k-spectrum is equivalent to the modulus of angular spectrum mathematically, the k-spectrum of optical speckle is propagation-invariant, which means that its slowing persists over arbitrarily long ranges.

Figure 2
The propagation speed of optical speckle - Scientific Reports
The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

An example of numerically generating optical speckle. (a) Gaussian probability density distribution of tilted directions in k-space. (b) Direction points with Gaussian density of standard deviation of 5. (c) Intensity profile of optical speckle created by the interference between Gaussian random waves with directions as (b). (d) Calculated k-spectrum of speckle field by 2D Fourier transform of its complex amplitude.

Summing and Normalizing

To evaluate the degree of slowing for this numerically creating optical speckle, we divide the k-spectrum in Fig.2d radially according to the evenly equidistant 1000 scales on the established \({{k_{r}^{2} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{k_{r}^{2} } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) axis. By summing and normalizing all the amplitudes with the individual ring regions divided from k-spectrum, each ring is calculated as a value point with global normalized probability along the \({{k_{r}^{2} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{k_{r}^{2} } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) axis, as shown in Fig.3.

Physically, each discrete point represents the probability of a plane wave that appears within a \({{\Delta k_{r}^{2} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{\Delta k_{r}^{2} } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) ring region of k-space, where \(\Delta k_{r}^{2}\) is the division value on axis. In this case (=5), the value \({{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) is calculated as 0.022465, and then the spatially average group velocity of such optical speckle is calculated by Eq.(1) as \(v_{g,z} \approx 0.9887c\). T

his means that the propagation speed of an optical speckle with the Gaussian divergence with standard deviation of 5 corresponds to a slowing of 1.13% in free space. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Figure 3
The propagation speed of optical speckle - Scientific Reports
The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Statistical distribution of tilted components in optical speckle. The discrete points represent the probability distribution of the k-spectrum components calculated along the scales of radial proportion square. The solid curve is the theoretical probability density distribution of radial proportion square from an ideal continuous Gaussian angular spectrum. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Numerical Analysis

We perform a numerical analysis for the relation between slowing effect as a function of the divergence of the optical speckle. In particular, the divergence refers to the spreading angle, which describes the standard deviation of the tilted angles of the wave vectors, as shown in the inset of Fig.4. By gradually adjusting from 0.5 to 5 at 0.5 intervals, we calculate the value \({{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) and corresponding slowing, as plotted in Fig.4.

For each case, the differences in the generation of Gaussian distributed random numbers within a diverging range would result in variation of the slowing predicted, and hence the error bar is derived from performing the calculation 8 times using the method of Fig.3. As anticipated, the predicted slowing effect becomes greater as the divergence increases. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Figure 4
The propagation speed of optical speckle - Scientific Reports
The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Numerically quantifying slowing effect of optical speckle. (a) Expectation values of radial proportion square and (b) degree of slowing under different divergence of optical speckle. The inset is a schematic of divergence of optical speckle where is the half spreading angle that describes the tilted plane-wave components.

Numerical Simulations

Beyond the numerical simulations described above, the theoretical expression of slowing effect also deduced. According to the probability density distribution of radial proportion square \({{k_{r}^{2} } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{k_{r}^{2} } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) in Eq.(2), its expected value is calculated as

where the infinite of upper limit in the integral is only mathematically meaningful for its normalization among the whole space, while more strictly in physics, the upper limit should be 1 since kr<k0. Clearly, \({{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } \mathord{\left/ {\vphantom {{\left\langle {k_{r}^{2} } \right\rangle } {k_{0}^{2} }}} \right. \kern-0pt} {k_{0}^{2} }}\) is proportional to square of the divergence of optical speckle, see the solid curve in Fig.4a. Using Eq.(1), for small angles , the degree of slowing of optical speckle is theoretically calculated as. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Detecting System

To anticipate the observable slowing in a practical detecting system, we consider the role that the aperture of the detector plays. The NA is a restriction on k-space when the optical speckle is observed by a detector or our eyes, as shown in the inset of Fig.5. When considering the restriction on complete spatial harmonics collecting of optical speckle by the detecting system, the upper limit of the integral in Eq.(3) is replaced by NA2 from infinite.

In the initialization settings of calculation here, the beam waist of Gaussian-distributed intensity profile of the optical speckle is set to 2mm, and its half spreading angle is set to 5. Figure5 shows the calculated degree of slowing under different NA, where the dashed line predicted by Eq.(4) refers to the ideal case without restriction of NA, and the solid curve is predicted by modified Eq.(3), and the data points are obtained with 8 calculations by filtering the complex amplitude of speckle field in k-spectrum.


Figure 5
The propagation speed of optical speckle - Scientific Reports
The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports

Restrictions of practical system on slowing effect of optical speckle where the itself speckle has a divergence of 5 and the detector has a limiting NA. The degree of slowing calculated under different numerical apertures (NA) of detecting system. The inset is a schematic of a detecting system for observing the plane-to-plane propagation of optical speckle. The propagation speed of optical speckle – Scientific Reports


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