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....

Summary - Refraction

Refraction is change in direction that occurs when a wave encounters the interface between two media. Together, refraction and reflection account for the basic principles behind nearly all optical devices.

Snell discovered the equation for refraction,

n1sin θ1 = n2sin θ2    [angles measured with respect to the normal]

through experiments with light rays, long before light was proven to be a wave. Snell's law can be proven based on the geometrical behavior of waves. Here n is the index of refraction. Snell invented this quantity to describe the refractive properties of various substances, but it was later found to be related to the speed of light in the substance,

n = c/v ,

where c is the speed of light in a vacuum. In general a material's index of refraction is different for different wavelengths of light.

As discussed in the third book of this series, any wave is partially transmitted and partially reflected at the boundary between two media in which its speeds are different. It is not particularly important to know the equation that tells what fraction is transmitted (and thus refracted), but important technologies such as fiber optics are based on the fact that this fraction becomes zero for sufficiently oblique angles. This phenomenon is referred to as total internal reflection. It occurs when there is no angle that satisfies Snell's law.

Last Update: 2010-11-11