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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • List the ways by which light travels from a source to another location.

The information presented in this section supports the following AP® learning objectives and science practices:

  • 6.F.4.1 The student is able to select a model of radiant energy that is appropriate to the spatial or temporal scale of an interaction with matter. (S.P. 6.4, 7.1)

There are three ways in which light can travel from a source to another location. (See [link] .) It can come directly from the source through empty space, such as from the Sun to Earth. Or light can travel through various media, such as air and glass, to the person. Light can also arrive after being reflected, such as by a mirror. In all of these cases, light is modeled as traveling in straight lines called rays. Light may change direction when it encounters objects (such as a mirror) or in passing from one material to another (such as in passing from air to glass), but it then continues in a straight line or as a ray. The word ray    comes from mathematics and here means a straight line that originates at some point. It is acceptable to visualize light rays as laser rays (or even science fiction depictions of ray guns).


The word “ray” comes from mathematics and here means a straight line that originates at some point.

Three methods for light to travel from a source to another location. (a) Light reaches the upper atmosphere of Earth traveling through empty space directly from the source. (b) Light can reach a person in one of two ways. It can travel through media like air and glass. It can also reflect from an object like a mirror. In the situations shown here, light interacts with objects large enough that it travels in straight lines, like a ray.

Experiments, as well as our own experiences, show that when light interacts with objects several times as large as its wavelength, it travels in straight lines and acts like a ray. Its wave characteristics are not pronounced in such situations. Since the wavelength of light is less than a micron (a thousandth of a millimeter), it acts like a ray in the many common situations in which it encounters objects larger than a micron. For example, when light encounters anything we can observe with unaided eyes, such as a mirror, it acts like a ray, with only subtle wave characteristics. We will concentrate on the ray characteristics in this chapter.

Since light moves in straight lines, changing directions when it interacts with materials, it is described by geometry and simple trigonometry. This part of optics, where the ray aspect of light dominates, is therefore called geometric optics    . There are two laws that govern how light changes direction when it interacts with matter. These are the law of reflection, for situations in which light bounces off matter, and the law of refraction, for situations in which light passes through matter.

Making connections: models of light

There are three different ways of thinking about or modeling light. Our earliest understanding of light dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who recorded their observations of the behavior of light as a ray. These philosophers noted that reflection, refraction, and formation of images can be explained by assuming objects emit and/or reflect light rays that travel in straight lines until they encounter an object or surface.

By the end of the 17th century, scientists came to understand that light also behaves like a wave. It exhibits phenomena associated with waves, such as diffraction and interference (which we will study in later chapters). Two hundred years later, scientists studying the smallest structures in nature showed that light can also be thought of as a stream of particles we call “photons,” each carrying its own individual portion (or “quantum”) of energy.

In this chapter, we will be discussing the behavior of light as it interacts with surfaces that are much larger than the wavelength of the light. In such cases, the light is very well modeled as a ray. When light interacts with smaller surfaces or openings (with sizes comparable to or smaller than the wavelength of light), the wavelike properties of light manifest more clearly—with profoundly interesting and useful results. When light interacts with individual atoms, the particle nature of light becomes more clearly apparent. We will study those situations in later chapters.

Geometric optics

The part of optics dealing with the ray aspect of light is called geometric optics.

Test prep for ap courses

When light from a distant object reflects off of a concave mirror and comes to a focus some distance in front of the mirror, we model light as a _____ to explain and predict the behavior of light and the formation of an image.

  1. wave
  2. particle
  3. ray
  4. all of the above


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Light of wavelength 500 nm is incident on a narrow slit of width 150 nm. Which model of light most accurately predicts the behavior of the light after it passes through the slit? Explain your answer.

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Section summary

  • A straight line that originates at some point is called a ray.
  • The part of optics dealing with the ray aspect of light is called geometric optics.
  • Light can travel in three ways from a source to another location: (1) directly from the source through empty space; (2) through various media; (3) after being reflected from a mirror.


Suppose a man stands in front of a mirror as shown in [link] . His eyes are 1.65 m above the floor, and the top of his head is 0.13 m higher. Find the height above the floor of the top and bottom of the smallest mirror in which he can see both the top of his head and his feet. How is this distance related to the man’s height?

A man standing in front of a mirror on a wall at a distance of several feet. The mirror’s top is at eye level, but its bottom is only waist high. Arrows illustrate how the man can see his reflection from head to toe in the mirror.
A full-length mirror is one in which you can see all of yourself. It need not be as big as you, and its size is independent of your distance from it.

Top 1 . 715 m size 12{1 "." "715"" m"} {} from floor, bottom 0 . 825 m size 12{0 "." "825 m"} {} from floor. Height of mirror is 0 . 890 m size 12{0 "." "890"" m"} {} , or precisely one-half the height of the person.

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Questions & Answers

If a prism is fully imersed in water then the ray of light will normally dispersed or their is any difference?
Anurag Reply
the same behavior thru the prism out or in water bud abbot
If this will experimented with a hollow(vaccum) prism in water then what will be result ?
What was the previous far point of a patient who had laser correction that reduced the power of her eye by 7.00 D, producing a normal distant vision power of 50.0 D for her?
Jaydie Reply
What is the far point of a person whose eyes have a relaxed power of 50.5 D?
What is the far point of a person whose eyes have a relaxed power of 50.5 D?
A young woman with normal distant vision has a 10.0% ability to accommodate (that is, increase) the power of her eyes. What is the closest object she can see clearly?
29/20 ? maybes
In what ways does physics affect the society both positively or negatively
Princewill Reply
how can I read physics...am finding it difficult to understand...pls help
rerry Reply
try to read several books on phy don't just rely one. some authors explain better than other.
And don't forget to check out YouTube videos on the subject. Videos offer a different visual way to learn easier.
hope that helps
I have a exam on 12 february
David Reply
what is velocity
the speed of something in a given direction.
what is a magnitude in physics
Jiti Reply
Propose a force standard different from the example of a stretched spring discussed in the text. Your standard must be capable of producing the same force repeatedly.
Giovani Reply
What is meant by dielectric charge?
It's Reply
what happens to the size of charge if the dielectric is changed?
Brhanu Reply
omega= omega not +alpha t derivation
Provakar Reply
u have to derivate it respected to time ...and as w is the angular velocity uu will relace it with "thita × time""
do to be peaceful with any body
Brhanu Reply
the angle subtended at the center of sphere of radius r in steradian is equal to 4 pi how?
Saeed Reply
if for diatonic gas Cv =5R/2 then gamma is equal to 7/5 how?
define variable velocity
Ali Reply
displacement in easy way.
Mubashir Reply
binding energy per nucleon
Poonam Reply
Practice Key Terms 2

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