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....

# Index of Refraction

What neither Snell nor Newton knew was that there is a very simple interpretation of the index of refraction. This may come as a relief to the reader who is taken aback by the complex reasoning involving proportionalities that led to its definition. Later experiments showed that the index of refraction of a medium was inversely proportional to the speed of light in that medium. Since c is defined as the speed of light in vacuum, and n=1 is defined as the index of refraction of vacuum, we have

n = c/v . [n = medium's index of refraction, v = speed of light in that medium, c=speed of light in a vacuum]

Many textbooks start with this as the definition of the index of refraction, although that approach makes the quantity's name somewhat of a mystery, and leaves students wondering why c/v was used rather than v/c. It should also be noted that measuring angles of refraction is a far more practical method for determining n than direct measurement of the speed of light in the substance of interest.

Last Update: 2009-06-21