# 25.3 The law of refraction  (Page 3/7)

 Page 3 / 7

## Law of refraction

[link] shows how a ray of light changes direction when it passes from one medium to another. As before, the angles are measured relative to a perpendicular to the surface at the point where the light ray crosses it. (Some of the incident light will be reflected from the surface, but for now we will concentrate on the light that is transmitted.) The change in direction of the light ray depends on how the speed of light changes. The change in the speed of light is related to the indices of refraction of the media involved. In the situations shown in [link] , medium 2 has a greater index of refraction than medium 1. This means that the speed of light is less in medium 2 than in medium 1. Note that as shown in [link] (a), the direction of the ray moves closer to the perpendicular when it slows down. Conversely, as shown in [link] (b), the direction of the ray moves away from the perpendicular when it speeds up. The path is exactly reversible. In both cases, you can imagine what happens by thinking about pushing a lawn mower from a footpath onto grass, and vice versa. Going from the footpath to grass, the front wheels are slowed and pulled to the side as shown. This is the same change in direction as for light when it goes from a fast medium to a slow one. When going from the grass to the footpath, the front wheels can move faster and the mower changes direction as shown. This, too, is the same change in direction as for light going from slow to fast.

The amount that a light ray changes its direction depends both on the incident angle and the amount that the speed changes. For a ray at a given incident angle, a large change in speed causes a large change in direction, and thus a large change in angle. The exact mathematical relationship is the law of refraction , or “Snell’s Law,” which is stated in equation form as

${n}_{1}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{sin}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{\theta }_{1}={n}_{2}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{sin}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{\theta }_{2}.$

Here ${n}_{1}$ and ${n}_{2}$ are the indices of refraction for medium 1 and 2, and ${\theta }_{1}$ and ${\theta }_{2}$ are the angles between the rays and the perpendicular in medium 1 and 2, as shown in [link] . The incoming ray is called the incident ray and the outgoing ray the refracted ray, and the associated angles the incident angle and the refracted angle. The law of refraction is also called Snell’s law after the Dutch mathematician Willebrord Snell (1591–1626), who discovered it in 1621. Snell’s experiments showed that the law of refraction was obeyed and that a characteristic index of refraction $n$ could be assigned to a given medium. Snell was not aware that the speed of light varied in different media, but through experiments he was able to determine indices of refraction from the way light rays changed direction.

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