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Refraction is the change in direction of a wave due to a change in its speed. This is most commonly observed when a wave passes from one medium to another. Refraction of light is the most commonly observed example, but any type of wave can refract when it interacts with a medium, for example when sound waves pass from one medium into another or when water waves move into water of a different depth. Refraction is described by Snell's law, which states that the angle of incidence is related to the angle of refraction by





v1 and v2 are the wave velocities through the respective media.
θ1 and θ2 are the angles between the normal (to the interface) plane and the incident waves respectively.
n1 and n2 are the refractive indices.


In optics, refraction occurs when light waves travel from a medium with a given refractive index to a medium with another. At the boundary between the media, the wave's phase velocity is altered, usually causing a change in direction. Its wavelength increases or decreases but its frequency remains constant. For example, a light ray will refract as it enters and leaves glass, assuming there is a change in refractive index. A ray travelling along the normal (perpendicular to the boundary) will change speed, but not direction. Refraction still occurs in this case. Understanding of this concept led to the invention of lenses and the refracting telescope.

In History, Ibn Sahl is credited with first discovering the law of refraction, usually called Snell's law. He used the law of refraction to work out the shapes of lenses that focus light with no geometric aberrations, known as anaclastic lenses. Ibn Sahl (Abu Sa`d al-`Ala' ibn Sahl) (c. 940-1000) was a Muslim Arabian mathematician, physicist and optics engineer associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad. About 984 he wrote a treatise On Burning Mirrors and Lenses in which he set out his understanding of how curved mirrors and lenses bend and focus light.

Refraction can be seen when looking into a bowl of water. Air has a refractive index of about 1.0003, and water has a refractive index of about 1.33. If a person looks at a straight object, such as a pencil or straw, which is placed at a slant, partially in the water, the object appears to bend at the water's surface. This is due to the bending of light rays as they move from the water to the air. Once the rays reach the eye, the eye traces them back as straight lines (lines of sight). The lines of sight (shown as dashed lines) intersect at a higher position than where the actual rays originated. This causes the pencil to appear higher and the water to appear shallower than it really is. The depth that the water appears to be when viewed from above is known as the apparent depth. This is an important consideration for spearfishing from the surface because it will make the target fish appear to be in a different place, and the fisher must aim lower to catch the fish.

Refraction is also responsible for rainbows and for the splitting of white light into a rainbow-spectrum as it passes through a glass prism. Glass has a higher refractive index than air. When a beam of white light passes from air into a material having an index of refraction that varies with frequency, a phenomenon known as dispersion occurs, in which different color components of the white light are refracted at different angles, i.e., they bend by different amounts at the interface, so that they become separated. The different colors correspond to different frequencies.

While refraction allows for beautiful phenomena such as rainbows, it may also produce peculiar optical phenomena, such as mirages and Fata Morgana. These are caused by the change of the refractive index of air with temperature.

Snell's law is used to calculate the degree to which light is refracted when traveling from one medium to another.

Recently some metamaterials have been created which have a negative refractive index. With metamaterials, we can also obtain total refraction phenomena when the wave impedances of the two media are matched. There is no reflected wave.

Also, since refraction can make objects appear closer than they are, it is responsible for allowing water to magnify objects. First, as light is entering a drop of water, it slows down. If the water's surface is not flat, then the light will be bent into a new path. This round shape will bend the light outwards and as it spreads out, the image you see gets larger.

A useful analogy in explaining the refraction of light would be to imagine a marching band as they march from pavement (a fast medium) into mud (a slower medium) The marchers on the side that runs into the mud first will slow down first. This causes the whole band to pivot slightly toward the normal (make a smaller angle from the normal).

Clinical significance

In medicine, particularly optometry, ophthalmology and orthoptics, refraction (also known as refractometry) is a clinical test in which a phoropter may used by the appropriate eye care professional to determine the eye's refractive error and the best corrective lenses to be prescribed. A series of test lenses in graded optical powers or focal lengths are presented to determine which provide the sharpest, clearest vision.[1]


In underwater acoustics, refraction is the bending or curving of a sound ray that results when the ray passes through a sound speed gradient from a region of one sound speed to a region of a different speed. The amount of ray bending is dependent upon the amount of difference between sound speeds, that is, the variation in temperature, salinity, and pressure of the water.[2] Similar acoustics effects are also found in the Earth's atmosphere. The phenomenon of refraction of sound in the atmosphere has been known for centuries;[3] however, beginning in the early 1970s, widespread analysis of this effect came into vogue through the designing of urban highways and noise barriers to address the meteorological effects of bending of sound rays in the lower atmosphere.[4]


  1. "Eye Glossary".
  2. Navy Supplement to the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Department Of The Navy. August 2006. NTRP 1-02
  3. Mary Somerville, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, J. Murray Publishers, (originally by Harvard University), 499 pages (1840)
  4. 1 C. Michael Hogan, Analysis of highway noise, Journal Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, Publisher Springer Netherlands, ISSN 0049-6979, Volume 2, Number 3, Pages 387–392, September, 1973
  • David W. Ward and Keith A. Nelson: On the Physical Origins of the Negative Index of Refraction, New Journal of Physics, 7, 213 (2005).

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