Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Refraction and the Eye

(a) The anatomy of the human eye. (After an uncopyrighted diagram by the National Eye Institute, NIH.)

The fundamental physical phenomenon at work in the eye is that when light crosses a boundary between two media (such as air and the eye's jelly), part of its energy is reflected, but part passes into the new medium. In the ray model of light, we describe the original ray as splitting into a reflected ray and a transmitted one (the one that gets through the boundary). Of course the reflected ray goes in a direction that is different from that of the original one, according to the rules of reflection we have already studied. More surprisingly - and this is the crucial point for making your eye focus light - the transmitted ray is bent somewhat as well. This bending phenomenon is called refraction. The origin of the word is the same as that of the word "fracture," i.e. the ray is bent or "broken." (Keep in mind, however, that light rays are not physical objects that can really be "broken.") Refraction occurs with all waves, not just light waves.

The actual anatomy of the eye, (a), is quite complex, but in essence it is very much like every other optical device based on refraction. The rays are bent when they pass through the front surface of the eye. Rays that enter farther from the central axis are bent more, with the result that an image is formed on the retina. There is only one slightly novel aspect of the situation. In most human-built optical devices, such as a movie projector, the light is bent as it passes into a lens, bent again as it reemerges, and then reaches a focus beyond the lens. In the eye, however, the "screen" is inside the eye, so the rays are only refracted once, on entering the jelly, and never emerge again.

(b) A simplified optical diagram of the eye. Light rays are bent when they cross from the air into the eye.

A common misconception is that the "lens" of the eye is what does the focusing. All the transparent parts of the eye are made of fairly similar stuff, so the dramatic change in medium is when a ray crosses from the air into the eye (at the outside surface of the cornea). This is where nearly all the refraction takes place. The lens medium differs only slightly in its optical properties from the rest of the eye, so very little refraction occurs as light enters and exits the lens. The lens, whose shape is adjusted by muscles attached to it, is only meant for fine-tuning the focus to form images of near or far objects.

Last Update: 2009-06-21