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Refraction facts for kids

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Rays of light through a different medium (labelled)
Diagram of refraction
Optical refraction at water surface
When viewing at a certain angle, the straw appears to bend, due to refraction of light as it moves into the air
Refraction photo
A ray of light being refracted in a plastic block.

Refraction is the change in direction of a wave, caused by the change in the wave's speed. Examples of waves include sound waves and light waves. Refraction is seen most often when a wave passes from one transparent medium to another transparent medium. Different types of medium include air and water.


Pen in water
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 passes from one transparent medium to another transparent medium, the wave will change its speed and its direction. For example, when a light wave travels through air and then passes into water, the wave will slow and change direction.

As light goes into a medium which is denser, the light ray will 'bend' toward the normal. When it goes back into the less dense medium (with a lower refractive index), it will bend back through the same angle as when it came in (if the surface at exit is parallel to the surface at entry).

An example of how refraction works is placing a straw in a cup of water, with part of the straw in the water. When looking at a certain angle, the straw appears to bend at the water's surface. This is because of the change in density of the medium and thus, bending of light rays as they move from the air to water.

A good and simple way to understand how light works is to think of it like a car. When the car hits the gravel surface (this is the medium) on an angle, the tire that hits it first will slow, causing it to turn in that direction. Therefore, if light hits a medium on the right having a greater refractive index, it will bend right. The amount of bending is given by Snell's law. Lenses work by refraction.

In optics the refractive index or index of refraction n of a substance is a dimensionless number that describes how light, or other radiation, goes through that medium. It is defined as

n = \frac{\mathrm{c}}{v},

where c is the speed of light in a vacuum and v is the phase velocity of light in the medium. Snell's law uses refractive indexes to calculate the amount of refraction.


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 coloured 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.

Atmospheric refraction

The sun appears slightly flattened when close to the horizon due to refraction in the atmosphere.

The refractive index of air depends on the air density and thus vary with air temperature and pressure. Since the pressure is lower at higher altitudes, the refractive index is also lower, causing light rays to refract towards the earth surface when traveling long distances through the atmosphere. This shifts the apparent positions of stars slightly when they are close to the horizon and makes the sun visible before it geometrically rises above the horizon during a sunrise.

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Heat haze in the engine exhaust above a diesel locomotive.

Temperature variations in the air can also cause refraction of light. This can be seen as a heat haze when hot and cold air is mixed e.g. over a fire, in engine exhaust, or when opening a window on a cold day. This makes objects viewed through the mixed air appear to shimmer or move around randomly as the hot and cold air moves. This effect is also visible from normal variations in air temperature during a sunny day when using high magnification telephoto lenses and is often limiting the image quality in these cases. In a similar way, atmospheric turbulence gives rapidly varying distortions in the images of astronomical telescopes limiting the resolution of terrestrial telescopes not using adaptive optics or other techniques for overcoming these atmospheric distortions.

Mirage over a hot road
Mirage over a hot road.

Air temperature variations close to the surface can give rise to other optical phenomena, such as mirages and Fata Morgana. Most commonly, air heated by a hot road on a sunny day deflects light approaching at a shallow angle towards a viewer. This makes the road appear reflecting, giving an illusion of water covering the road.

Clinical significance

In medicine, particularly optometry, ophthalmology and orthoptics, refraction (also known as refractometry) is a clinical test in which a phoropter may be 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 provides the sharpest, clearest vision.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Refracción para niños

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