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Refraction Made Easy

The key to understanding optics only takes a few minutes and is REALLY simple. Once you understand how easy it is to control the speed of light, then you'll see how easy it is to control the direction of light. The bending of light is called REFRACTION.


Here's a ray of light, traveling in a straight line. Notice the individual photons of light. When photons hit a clear material that's denser than air (like water), the photons slow down (shown here bunched together).




Light moves even slower when traveling through diamonds, because diamonds are much denser than water. Examples of refractive materials are water, glass, and plastic.

Refractive index is a number describing the optical density of transparent materials. Denser stuff has a higher number. For instance, the refractive index of:
Air
Fresh water
Seawater ranges
Plastics range
Diamond
Glass ranges

1.0
1.33
1.338 to 1.359
1.44 to 1.71
2.41
1.44 to over 2.2

The higher the refractive index, the slower light will travel and the more it can be bent.




If a light ray hits a refractive medium at an angle, notice that the photons tilt. This tilting causes the photon to change direction. The corner of the photon entering the refractive material first slows, while the other side keeps moving fast because it is in the less dense air. When exiting the water, back into the less dense air, the side that exits the water first speeds up... so the photon tilts again.




When photons hit the super-dense diamond, the speed of light slows radically... so there's more bending. Diamonds have a higher refractive index than glass or water.


1--> 2--> 3--> 4--> 5


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