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The Refraction of Light. Light moves at different speeds through different media. When it travels from one medium into another, the change in speed causes the ray to bend. An analogy for refraction.

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The Refraction of Light

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The Refraction of Light

Light moves at different speeds through different media. When it travels from one medium into another, the change in speed causes the ray to bend.

an analogy for refraction
An analogy for refraction

As a marching band moves from an area where the ground is solid to one where it is soft and muddy, the direction of motion changes.


Huygens’ Principle and the Law of Refraction

Huygens’ principle can also explain the law of refraction.

As the wavelets propagate from each point, they propagate more slowly in the medium of higher index of refraction.

This leads to a bend in the wavefront and therefore in the ray.


The Refraction of Light

The angle of refraction is related to the different speeds:

The speed of light in a medium is given by the index of refraction of that medium:


The Refraction of Light

We can now write the angle of refraction in terms of the index of refraction:

index of refraction
Index of Refraction

A beam of light in air enters

(a) water (n = 1.33) or (b) diamond (n = 2.42)

at an angle of 60.0° relative to the normal


The Refraction of Light

Basic properties of refraction:


The Refraction of Light

Here are some typical indices of refraction:


The Refraction of Light

If light enters a medium of lower index of refraction, it will be bent away from the normal. If the angle of incidence is large enough, the angle of refraction is 90°; at larger incident angles the light will be totally reflected.


The Refraction of Light

Refraction can make objects immersed in water appear broken, and can create mirages.


Huygens’ Principle and the Law of Refraction

Highway mirages are due to a gradually changing index of refraction in heated air.


The Visible Spectrum and Dispersion

The index of refraction of a material varies somewhat with the wavelength of the light.


Huygens’ Principle and the Law of Refraction

The frequency of the light does not change, but the wavelength does as it travels into a new medium.


The Visible Spectrum and Dispersion

This variation in refractive index is why a prism will split visible light into a rainbow of colors.


The Visible Spectrum and Dispersion

Actual rainbows are created by dispersion in tiny drops of water.

how rainbows are produced
How rainbows are produced

As a single drop of rainfalls toward the ground, it sends all the colors of the rainbow to an observer. The top of the rainbow is red, and the bottom is violet.

light propagating through a glass slab
Light propagating through a glass slab

When a ray of light passes through a glass slab, it first refracts toward the normal, then away from the normal. The net result is that the ray continues in its original direction but is displaced sideways by a finite distance.


Disappearing Glass Rods

You can make glass objects disappear!

Glass objects are visible because they reflect some of the light that shines on them and bend or refract the light that shines through them. If you eliminate reflection from and refraction by a glass object, you can make that object disappear.


*Wesson oil. (Regular, not lite.)

*One or more Pyrex stirring rods or other small, clear glass objects.

*A beaker.


Pour some Wesson™ oil into the beaker.


Immerse a glass object in the oil. Notice that the object becomes more difficult to see. Only a ghostly image of the object remains. If you do this as a demonstration, keep your audience at a distance to make it harder for them to see the ghost object.

Experiment with a variety of glass objects, such as clear marbles, lenses, and odd glassware. Some will disappear in the oil more completely than others.

You can make an eyedropper vanish before your eyes by immersing it and then sucking oil up into the dropper.

Immerse the magnifying lens in the oil. Notice that it does not magnify images when it is submerged.



When light traveling through air encounters a glass surface at an angle, some of the light reflects. The rest of the light keeps going, but it bends or refracts as it moves from the air to the glass. You see a glass object because it both reflects and refracts light.

When light passes from air into glass, it slows down. It's this change in speed that causes the light to reflect and refract as it moves from one clear material (air) to another (glass). Every material has an index of refraction that is linked to the speed of light in the material. The higher a material's index of refraction, the slower light travels in that material.

The smaller the difference in speed between two clear materials, the less reflection will occur at the boundary and the less refraction will occur for the transmitted light. If a transparent object is surrounded by another material that has the same index of refraction, then the speed of light will not change as it enters the object. No reflection and no refraction will take place, and the object will be invisible.


Wesson oil has nearly the same index of refraction (n) as Pyrex glass (n = 1.474). Different glasses have different indices of refraction. In Wesson oil, Pyrex disappears, but other types of glass &emdash; such as crown glass or flint glass &emdash; remain visible. Fortunately for us, a great deal of laboratory glassware and home kitchen glassware is made from Pyrex glass.

For most Pyrex glass, the index matching with Wesson oil is not perfect. This is because the Pyrex glass has internal strains that make its index of refraction vary at different places in the object. Even if you can match the index of refraction for one part of a Pyrex stirring rod, the match will not be perfect for other parts of the rod. That's why a ghostly image of the rod remains even with the best index matching.

The index of refraction of the oil (and of the glass, too) is a function of temperature. This demonstration will work better on some days than others.


Index of refraction is sometimes called optical density, but optical density is not the same as mass density. Two materials can have different mass densities even when they have the same index of refraction.

Though Pyrex glass and Wesson oil have similar indices of refraction, Pyrex sinks in Wesson oil because it has a higher mass density than the oil. Wesson oil has a higher index of refraction than water (n = 1.33), but it has a lower mass density and floats on water. The index of refraction depends not only on density, but also on the chemical composition of a material.


You can also make Pyrex glass disappear by immersing it in mineral oil, which is available from pharmacies or chemical supply houses. However, mineral oil comes in light, medium, and heavy weights, and each variety has a different index of refraction. To match the index of refraction of Pyrex glass, you'll need a mixture of mineral oils of different weights. To create the proper mixture, place a Pyrex glass object into a large glass beaker and pour in enough heavy mineral oil to submerge it partially. Slowly add light mineral oil and stir. Watch the glass object as you pour. Most Pyrex glass will disappear when the mixture is about 2 parts heavy mineral oil to 1 part light mineral oil. Notice the swirling refraction patterns as you mix the two oils.

Karo syrup is another material that has an index of refraction close to that of glass. Karo can be diluted with water to match some varieties of glass.