Refraction – Faster to Slower medium
- As the ray crosses the boundary and encounters the glass it bends towards the normal (the dotted green line).
- The incident ray of light is refracted towards the normal because the ray travels from air, the faster, less optically dense medium with a lower refractive index into the glass, a slower, more optically dense medium with the higher refractive index.
Refraction - Faster to slower medium
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About the diagram
Have you already checked out An Introduction to Reflection, Refraction and Dispersion?
Overview of this page
- This page provides an introduction to refraction.
- It looks at the path of white light rather than at the paths of the different wavelengths that white light contains.
- Related topics including reflection and dispersion are covered on other pages of this series.
- Introductions to the terms refractive index and the law of refraction (sometimes called Snell’s law) also appear on later pages in the series.
An overview of refraction
- Refraction refers to the way that light (electromagnetic radiation) changes direction and speed as it travels from one transparent medium into another.
- Refraction takes place as light travels across the boundary between different transparent media and is a result of their different optical properties.
- When light is refracted its path bends and so changes direction.
- The effect of refraction on the path of a ray of light is measured by the difference between the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection.
- As light travels across the interface between different media (such as between air and glass) it changes speed.
- Depending on the media through which light is refracted, its speed can increase or decrease.
About the diagram
- This diagram shows an incident ray of white light approaching the boundary between air and glass.
- The diagram shows that the angle of incidence and the angle of refraction of the ray of light are different as a result of refraction.
- As the ray crosses the boundary from the air and encounters the glass, it bends towards the normal (the dotted green line) because glass is an optically denser medium (with a higher refractive index than air) that slows it down.
- Imagine running into the wind. It’s always harder to run in water because it is a physically denser medium than air. The physical density of a substance is similar to the optical density of a transparent medium.
- When light crosses the boundary between two different transparent media it undergoes refraction.
- The effect of refraction is that light changes speed along with its direction of travel.
- As the speed of light changes so does its wavelength but the frequency and so the colour an observer sees remains the same.
- The result of the change in direction is that rays either bend towards or away from the normal.
- The normal is an imaginary line drawn on a ray diagram at right angles (perpendicular) to the boundary between two media.
- The change between the angle of incidence and the angle of refraction of a ray of light is always measured between the ray and the normal.
- Whether light bends towards or away from the normal depends on the difference in optical density of the new medium it encounters.
- An incident ray of light is refracted towards the normal and slows down when it travels from air into glass. Compared with air, glass is a slower, more optically dense medium (with the higher refractive index).
- An incident ray of light is refracted away from the normal and speeds up when it travels from glass into air. Compared with glass, air is a faster, less optically dense medium (with a lower refractive index).
Calculating the angle of refraction
- The direction in which a ray bends, and the precise angle, can be calculated if the type and refractive indices of both media are known.
- The effect of refraction can be calculated using a neat little equation called the law of refraction (also known as Snell’s law).
- If three of the variables are known, the law of refraction can be used to calculate the fourth.
- Tables of refractive indices are available for common materials so that the change in direction of a ray can be calculated.
- Tables of refractive indices for common materials often provide both the refractive index for white light as well as indices for specific wavelengths.
For an explanation of the refractive index (index of refraction) of a medium see: Refractive Index Explained.
For an explanation of how to use the refractive index of a medium see: How to Use the Refractive Index of a Medium.
For an explanation of the Law of Refraction see: Snell’s Law of Refraction Explained.
- Incident light refers to incoming light that is travelling towards an object or medium.
- White light is the name given to visible light that contains all wavelengths of the visible spectrum at equal intensities.
- The sun emits white light because sunlight contains equal amounts of all of the wavelengths of the visible spectrum.
- As light travels through a vacuum or a medium it is described as white light if it contains all the wavelengths of visible light.
- As light travels through a vacuum or the air it is invisible to our eyes.
- White light is what an observer sees when all the colours that make up the visible spectrum strike a white or neutral coloured surface.
- The visible spectrum is the range of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that correspond with all the different colours we see in the world.
- Human beings don’t see wavelengths of visible light, but they do see the spectral colours that correspond with each wavelength and colours produced when different wavelengths are combined.
- The visible spectrum includes all the spectral colours between red and violet and each is produced by a single wavelength.
Angle of incidence
- The angle of incidence measures the angle at which incoming light strikes a surface.
- The angle of incidence is measured between a ray of incoming light and an imaginary line called the normal.
Angle of refraction
- The angle of refraction measures the angle to which light bends as it passes across the boundary between different media.
- The angle of refraction is measured between a ray of light and an imaginary line called the normal.
- Optical density is a measurement of the degree to which a medium slows the transmission of light.
- The more optically dense a material, the slower light travels.
- The less optically dense a material, the faster light travels.
- In geometry, the normal is a line that intersects another line.
- In optics, the normal is an imaginary line drawn on a ray diagram at right angles (perpendicular) to the boundary between two media.
- The normal is often used to measure angles against.
Some key terms
- The wavelength of an electromagnetic wave is measured in metres.
- Each type of electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves, visible light and gamma waves, forms a band of wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum.
- The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is composed of the range of wavelengths that correspond with all the different colours we see in the world.
- Human beings don’t see wavelengths of visible light, but they do see the spectral colours that correspond with each wavelength and the other colours produced when different wavelengths are combined.
- The wavelength of visible light is measured in nanometres. There are 1,000,000,000 nanometres to a metre.
As light crosses the boundary between two transparent media, the law of refraction (Snell’s law) states the relationship between the angle of incidence and angle of refraction of the light with reference to the refractive indices of both media as follows:
When electromagnetic radiation (light) of a specific frequency crosses the interface of any given pair of media, the ratio of the sines of the angles of incidence and the sines of the angles of refraction is a constant in every case.
- Snell’s law deals with the fact that for an incident ray approaching the boundary of two media, the sine of the angle of incidence multiplied by the index of refraction of the first medium is equal to the sine of the angle of refraction multiplied by the index of refraction of the second medium.
- Snell’s law deals with the fact that the sine of the angle of incidence to the sine of the angle of refraction is constant when a light ray passes across the boundary from one medium to another.
- Snell’s law can be used to calculate the angle of incidence or refraction associated with the use of lenses, prisms and other everyday materials.
- When using Snell’s law:
- The angles of incidence and refraction are measured between the direction of a ray of light and the normal – where the normal is an imaginary line drawn on a ray diagram perpendicular to, so at a right angle to (900), to the boundary between two media.
- The wavelength of the incident light is accounted for.
- The refractive indices used are selected for the pair of media concerned.
- The speed of light is expressed in metres per second (m/s).
- In optics, a medium is a material through which electromagnetic waves propagate.
- Although electromagnetic radiation is able to propagate through a wide range of media, it is not dependent upon on any medium for propagation and travels at the speed of light through a vacuum.
- The reason an electromagnetic wave does not need a medium to propagate through is because the only thing that is waving/oscillating is the value of the electric and magnetic fields.
- In general terms, empty space (a vacuum) is not considered to be a medium because it does not contain matter.
- It is the permittivity and permeability of a medium that determines how waves travel.
About sections (temp)
- Refractive index (or, index of refraction) is a measure of how much slower light travels through any given medium than through a vacuum.
- The concept of refractive index applies to the full electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma-rays to radio waves.
- The refractive index of a medium is a numerical value and is represented by the symbol n.
- Because it is a ratio of the speed of light in a vacuum to the speed of light in a medium there is no unit for refractive index.
- If the speed of light in a vacuum = 1. Then the ratio is 1:1.
- The refractive index of water is 1.333, meaning that light travels 1.333 times slower in water than in a vacuum. The ratio is therefore 1:1.333.
- As light undergoes refraction its wavelength changes as its speed changes.
- As light undergoes refraction its frequency remains the same.
- The energy transported by light is not affected by refraction or the refractive index of a medium.
- The colour of refracted light perceived by a human observer does not change during refraction because the frequency of light and the amount of energy transported remain the same.
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