7b: Refraction

A wave that changes speed as it crosses the boundary of between two materials will also change direction if it crosses the boundary at an angle other than perpendicular. This is because the part of the wavefront that gets to the boundary first, slows down first. The bending of a wave due to changes in speed as it crosses a boundary is called refraction. As mentioned in the last chapter, light in air or a vacuum travels at c = 3.0×108 m/s but slows down when passing through glass. As shown in the diagram below, this will cause light to change direction a little. For a piece of glass with flat surfaces this isn’t very noticeable unless the glass is very thick. But for a curved surface the light ends up leaving the glass going in a different direction and this is how lenses for glasses, telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, etc. are made.

refraction1

What about sound? Sound also undergoes refraction. Recall from the last chapter that wind can change the speed of air. In the following picture notice that Jill can hear Jack because the wind speeds up the upper edges of the sound, bending it back towards the ground. Jill can’t hear Dana because the wind bends the sound upward.

refraction2

Likewise we know that the speed of sound depends on density which changes with temperature and humidity. In the following picture notice that Jill can hear Jack because the warmer temperature speeds up the upper edges of the sound, bending it back towards the ground. In the second picture there is a temperature inversion with warmer air trapped underneath cooler air. Jill sees but does not hear the lightning (this is sometimes called heat lightning, as shown in the second figure below).

refraction3and4

Video/audio examples:

The broken straw illusion (due to refraction of light).

Sound refraction by a balloon (note that this is different from the speed of
sound in a balloon full of gas in the last chapter)

Sound refraction example by Paul Hewitt.

Example of refraction.

Optical illusions due to the refraction of light.


Snell’s law tells you how much a light wave will bend when going from air to glass or vice versa.


Light going into the glass ends up with a refracted angle that is smaller than the incident angle. Going the other way (glass to air) the light ends up with a larger refracted angle than the incident angle. In this case, what happens if the refracted angle tries to exceed 90 degrees? It reflects back into the glass, rather than passing into air. This is known as total internal reflection and is a consequence of Snell’s Law.


An example of total internal reflection in a water stream. The same thing happens in a fiber optic cable; light stays inside the cable because of total internal reflection.


This Ripple Tank Simulation by Paul Falstad lets you look at waves being bent by refraction and temperature gradients. Directions: First choose Setup: Refraction. What is going on? Why does the wave change direction when it reaches the lower medium? Now choose Setup: Temperature Gradient 1. Why do the waves bend to go downwards? What is the parallel between this simulation and the description given by Paul Hewitt (second link in this list)?

Another example of refraction with carbon dioxide and a cartoon explanation.
Mini-lab on Ray Tracing.
Simulation exercise 7B (turn in answers on a separate sheet of paper): Refraction.
Simulation exercise 7C (turn in answers on a separate sheet of paper): Lenses.
Simulation exercise 7D (turn in answers on a separate sheet of paper): Dispersion 1.
Simulation exercise 7E (turn in answers on a separate sheet of paper): Dispersion of a Square Wave.

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