Refraction of waves and rays

Refraction of light rays

Different materials have different densities. Light waves may change direction at the boundary between two transparent materials. Refraction is the change in direction of a wave at such a boundary.

It is important to be able to draw ray diagrams to show the refraction of a wave at a boundary.

A light ray travels from air to glass. The angle of incidence is 55 degrees. The angle of refraction is 33 degrees.A ray diagram showing refraction of light at the boundary between air and glass

Refraction can cause optical illusions as the light waves appear to come from a different position to their actual source.

Refraction of water waves

Water waves will change direction at a boundary between deep and shallow water.

A diagram shows a wave moving from a deeper area of water to a shallower area. The wave slows down and its wavelength decreases and becomes shorter in the shallow water. The frequency remains the same

The waves slow down as they enter the shallow water which causes the wavelengths to shorten.

Explaining refraction of light

The density of a material affects the speed that a wave will be transmitted through it. In general, the denser the transparent material, the more slowly light travels through it.

Glass is denser than air, so a light ray passing from air into glass slows down. If the ray meets the boundary at an angle to the normal, it bends towards the normal.

The reverse is also true. A light ray speeds up as it passes from glass into air, and bends away from the normal by the same angle.

Light ray hits glass block at right angles to surface. Wave slows, its wavelength decreases as it enters glass. As wave returns to air, speed and wavelength increase to original values.
A useful way of remembering the speed and direction changes of light during refraction is ‘FAST’: Faster - Away / Slower - Towards

Wave speed, frequency and wavelength in refraction

For a given frequency of light, the wavelength is proportional to the wave speed:

wave speed = frequency × wavelength

So if a wave slows down, its wavelength will decrease. The effect of this can be shown using wave front diagrams, like the one below. The diagram shows that as a wave travels into a denser medium, such as water, it slows down and the wavelength decreases. Although the wave slows down, its frequency remains the same, due to the fact that its wavelength is shorter.

When waves travel from one medium to another the frequency never changes.
Wave front diagram, illustrating a wave as it travels from air into water, and slows down.
  1. As waves travel into the denser medium, they slow down and wavelength decreases.
  2. Part of the wave travels faster for longer causing the wave to turn.
  3. The wave is slower but the wavelength is shorter meaning frequency remains the same.

In this diagram, the right hand side of the incoming wave slows down before the left hand side does. This causes the wave to change direction.