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....

Reflection and Transmission

In book 3 we developed an equation for the percentage of the wave energy that is transmitted and the percentage reflected at a boundary between media. This was only done in the case of waves in one dimension, however, and rather than discuss the full three dimensional generalization it will be more useful to go into some qualitative observations about what happens. First, reflection happens only at the interface between two media, and two media with the same index of refraction act as if they were a single medium. Thus, at the interface between media with the same index of refraction, there is no reflection, and the ray keeps going straight. Continuing this line of thought, it is not surprising that we observe very little reflection at an interface between media with similar indices of refraction.

The next thing to note is that it is possible to have situations where no possible angle for the refracted ray can satisfy Snell's law. Solving Snell's law for θ2, we find

and if n1 is greater than n2, then there will be large values of θ1 for which the quantity (n1/n2) sin θ is greater than one, meaning that your calculator will flash an error message at you when you try to take the inverse sine. What can happen physically in such a situation? The answer is that all the light is reflected, so there is no refracted ray. This phenomenon is known as total internal reflection, and is used in the fiber-optic cables that nowadays carry almost all long-distance telephone calls. The electrical signals from your phone travel to a switching center, where they are converted from electricity into light. From there, the light is sent across the country in a thin transparent fiber. The light is aimed straight into the end of the fiber, and as long as the fiber never goes through any turns that are too sharp, the light will always encounter the edge of the fiber at an angle sufficiently oblique to give total internal reflection. If the fiber-optic cable is thick enough, one can see an image at one end of whatever the other end is pointed at.

Total internal reflection in a fiber-optic cable.

Alternatively, a bundle of cables can be used, since a single thick cable is too hard to bend. This technique for seeing around corners is useful for making surgery less traumatic. Instead of cutting a person wide open, a surgeon can make a small "keyhole" incision and insert a bundle of fiberoptic cable (known as an endoscope) into the body.

A simplified drawing of a surgical endoscope. The first lens forms a real image at one end of a bundle of optical fibers. The light is transmitted through the bundle, and is finally magnified by the eyepiece.

Since rays at sufficiently large angles with respect to the normal may be completely reflected, it is not surprising that the relative amount of reflection changes depending on the angle of incidence, and is greatest for large angles of incidence.

Last Update: 2010-11-11