In physics, refraction is the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another or from a gradual change in the medium.
Refraction of light is the most commonly observed phenomenon, but other waves such as sound waves and water waves also experience refraction. How much a wave is refracted is determined by the change in wave speed and the initial direction of wave propagation relative to the direction of change in speed.
A pen partially submerged in a bowl of water appears bent due to refraction at the water surface.
Refraction of light can be seen in many places in our everyday life. It makes objects under a water surface appear closer than they really are. It is what optical lenses are based on, allowing for instruments such as glasses, cameras, binoculars, microscopes, and the human eye. Refraction is also responsible for some natural optical phenomena including rainbows and mirages.
When a wave moves into a slower medium the wavefronts get compressed. For the wavefronts to stay connected at the boundary the wave must change direction.
A correct explanation of refraction involves two separate parts, both a result of the wave nature of light.
Light slows as it travels through a medium other than vacuum (such as air, glass or water). This is not because of scattering or absorption. Rather it is because, as an electromagnetic oscillation, light itself causes other electrically charged particles such as electrons, to oscillate. The oscillating electrons emit their own electromagnetic waves which interact with the original light. The resulting “combined” wave has wave packets that pass an observer at a slower rate. The light has effectively been slowed. When light returns to a vacuum and there are no electrons nearby, this slowing effect ends and its speed returns to c.
When light enters, exits or changes the medium it travels in, at an angle, one side or the other of the wavefront is slowed before the other. This asymmetrical slowing of the light causes it to change the angle of its travel. Once light is within the new medium with constant properties, it travels in a straight line again.
Explanation for slowing of light in a medium
As described above, the speed of light is slower in a medium other than vacuum. This slowing applies to any medium such as air, water, or glass, and is responsible for phenomena such as refraction. When light leaves the medium and returns to a vacuum, and ignoring any effects of gravity, its speed returns to the usual speed of light in a vacuum, c.
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