Reflection and Refraction

Edited by Jamie (ScienceAid Editor), Taylor (ScienceAid Editor)


About Reflection and Refraction

Try not to confuse these two terms as people often do, being they both involve changing the direction of waves.


Waves,in particular light, is reflected off surfaces. If we take the example of rays of light on a mirror, a virtual image is formed. This is upright, the same size, and appears to be directly behind the mirror. If a ray of light is beamed at a mirror, this will be reflected. The normal to the block is perpendicular to it, the angles are measured in reference to this. The ray going in is called the incident ray, and the acute (smaller) angle it makes with the normal, is called the angle of incidence. See diagram below to understand this.

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diagram illustrating the angle of incidence and normal

The angle the reflected ray leaves is equal to the angle of incidence. I.e. angle of incidence = angle of reflection.

angle of reflection


Refraction has light waves changing direction. This occurs as a result of the light changing speed when it goes from one medium to another. The speed of light varies according to what it is travelling through. The standard given is the speed in a vacuum, this is 299,792 Km/s, the speed of light in water is 225,000 Km/s.

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Take a look at the example of refraction shown below. The light ray is travelling through tank of water.

refraction of light beam through water

When the light enters the water, it slows down - so it moves toward the normal. When the light emerges from the tank into air, it speeds up so it moves away from the normal. Refraction in water is why when you stand beside a swimming pool and look down into it, it appears to be shallower than it really is. Also, if you put a straw at an angle in a cup of water or juice, it will appear to bend just where the liquid meets the air.

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Total Internal Reflection (TIR)

The inner surface of a glass block will begin acting like a mirror if a ray of light strikes it at the critical angle. The critical angle is 42°. This value is less in other mediums - for instance it is 49° between water and air. When the angle of incidence is equal to the critical angle, the light will emerge along the edge of the block, but when the angle of incidence is more than the critical angle, it will be reflected. The diagram below illustrates this.

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how the angle of incidence affects total internal reflection

This phenomenon is put into practical use in fibre optic cables. Light signals travel along a glass fibre providing the angle of incidence exceeds the critical angle of 42°. Fibre optic cables are used to send telecommunications and information - such as the internet.

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Referencing this Article

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APA (American Psychological Association)
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Article Info

Categories : Waves

Recent edits by: Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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