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