A mirror is an object with a surface that has good specular reflection; that is, it is smooth enough to form an image. The most familiar type of mirror is the plane mirror, which has a flat surface. Curved mirrors are also used, to produce magnified or diminished images or focus light or simply distort the reflected image.
Mirrors are most commonly used for personal grooming (in which case the old-fashioned term "looking-glass" can be used), decoration, and architecture. Mirrors are also used in scientific apparatus such as telescopes and lasers, cameras, and industrial machinery. Most mirrors are designed for visible light; however, mirrors designed for other types of waves or other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are also used, especially in optical instruments.
Metal-coated glass mirrors are said to have been invented in Sidon (modern-day Lebanon) in the first century AD, and glass mirrors backed with gold leaf are mentioned by the Roman author Pliny in his Natural History, written in about 77 AD. The Romans also developed a technique for creating crude mirrors by coating blown glass with molten lead.
Refracting parabolic mirrors were first described by the Arabian physicist, Ibn Sahl, in the 10th century, and was later described again by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) in his famous Book of Optics (1021). Ibn al-Haytham discussed concave and convex mirrors in both cylindrical and spherical geometries, described spherical and parabolic mirrors, carried out a number of experiments with mirrors, and solved the problem of finding the point on a convex mirror at which a ray coming from one point is reflected to another point. By the 11th century, clear glass mirrors were being produced in Moorish Spain.
Some time during the early Renaissance, European manufacturers perfected a superior method of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam. The exact date and location of the discovery is unknown, but in the 16th century, Venice, a city famed for its glass-making expertise, became a centre of mirror production using this new technique. Glass mirrors from this period were extremely expensive luxuries. The Saint-Gobain factory, founded by royal initiative in France, was an important manufacturer, and Bohemian and German glass, often rather cheaper, was also important.
The invention of the silvered-glass mirror is credited to German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835. His process involved the deposition of a thin layer of metallic silver onto glass through the chemical reduction of silver nitrate. This silvering process was adapted for mass manufacturing and led to the greater availability of affordable mirrors. Nowadays, mirrors are often produced by the vacuum deposition of aluminium (or sometimes silver) directly onto the glass substrate.
Historically, mirrors in the classical antiquity were made of solid metal (bronze, later silver) and they were too expensive for widespread use as well as being prone to corrosion. Due to polished metal's low reflectivity, antique mirrors also gave a darker picture compared to modern ones, making them unsuitable for indoor use with artificial lighting (candles or lanterns at the time).
The method of making mirrors out of ordinary glass was discovered by 16th century venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano, who covered the backside of plate glass with mercury, obtaining near-perfect reflection and imaging qualities. For over one hundred years venetian mirrors installed in richly decorated frames served as luxury decoration for palaces throughout Europe, but the secret of mercury process eventually arrived to London and Paris during the 17th century, due to industrial espionage. French workshops succeeded in large scale industrialization of the process, eventually making mirrors affordable to the masses, although mercury's toxicity remained a problem.
The tin is applied because silver will not bond with the glass. The activator causes the tin/silver to harden. Copper is added for long-term durability. The paint protects the coating on the back of the mirror from scratches and other accidental damage.
In some applications, generally those that are cost-sensitive or that require great durability, mirrors are instead made from a single, bulk material such as polished metal.
For technical applications such as laser mirrors, the reflective coating is typically applied by vacuum deposition on the front surface of the substrate. This eliminates double reflections and reduces absorption of light in the mirror. Cheaper technical mirrors use a silver, aluminium, or gold coating (the latter typically for infrared mirrors), and achieve reflectivities of 90–95% when new. A protective overcoat may be applied to prevent oxidation of the reflective layer. Applications requiring higher reflectivity or greater durability use dielectric coatings, which can achieve reflectivities as high as 99.999% over a narrow range of wavelengths.
In a plane mirror, a parallel beam of light changes its direction as a whole, while still remaining parallel; the images formed by a plane mirror are virtual images, of the same size as the original object (see mirror image). There are also concave mirrors, where a parallel beam of light becomes a convergent beam, whose rays intersect in the focus of the mirror. Lastly, there are convex mirrors, where a parallel beam becomes divergent, with the rays appearing to diverge from a common intersection "behind" the mirror. Spherical concave and convex mirrors do not focus parallel rays to a single point due to spherical aberration. However, the ideal of focusing to a point is a commonly-used approximation. Parabolic reflectors resolve this, allowing incoming parallel rays (for example, light from a distant star) to be focused to a small spot; almost an ideal point. Parabolic reflectors are not suitable for imaging nearby objects because the light rays are not parallel.
A beam of light reflects off a mirror at an angle of reflection that is equal to its angle of incidence (if the size of a mirror is much larger than the wavelength of light). That is, if the beam of light is shining on a mirror's surface at a 30° angle from vertical, then it reflects from the point of incidence at a 30° angle from vertical in the opposite direction.
This law mathematically follows from the interference of a plane wave on a flat boundary (of much larger size than the wavelength).
Convex mirrors are used to provide a wider field of view than a flat mirror. They are sometimes placed at road junctions, and corners of places such as parking lots to allow people to see around corners to avoid crashing into other vehicles or shopping carts. They are also sometimes used as part of security systems, so that a single video camera can show more than one angle at a time.
Mouth mirrors or "dental mirrors" are used by dentists to allow indirect vision and lighting within the mouth. Their reflective surfaces may be either flat or curved. Mouth mirrors are also commonly used by engineers to allow vision in tight spaces and around corners in equipment.
Contrary to popular belief, passive one-way mirrors that operate directionally between equally lit rooms do not exist. The laws of physics do not allow for real, passive one-way mirrors or windows (ones that do not need external energy); if such a device were possible, one could break the second law of thermodynamics and make energy flow from a cold object to a hot one, by placing such a mirror between them. One-way windows can be made to work with polarized light, however, without violating the second law. Optical isolators are one-way devices that are commonly used with lasers.
Mirrors can also be used for rescue, especially to attract the attention of search and rescue helicopters. Specialised signalling mirrors are available and are often included in military survival kits.
Other projection technologies involving mirrors include LCoS. Like a DLP chip, LCoS is a microchip of similar size, but rather than millions of individual mirrors, there is a single mirror that is actively shielded by a liquid crystal matrix with up to millions of pixels. The picture is formed as light is either reflected toward the projection surface (pixel on), or absorbed by the activated LCD pixels (pixel off). LCoS-based televisions and projectors often use 3 chips, one for each primary color.
Large mirrors are used in rear projection televisions. Light (for example from a DLP as mentioned above) is "folded" by one or more mirrors so that the television set is compact.
The reflectivity of the mirror coating can be measured using a reflectometer and for a particular metal it will be different for different wavelengths of light. This is exploited in some optical work to make cold mirrors and hot mirrors. A cold mirror is made by using a transparent substrate and choosing a coating material that is more reflective to visible light and more transmissive to infrared light. A hot mirror is the opposite, the coating preferentially reflects infrared. Mirror surfaces are sometimes given thin film overcoatings both to retard degradation of the surface and to increase their reflectivity in parts of the spectrum where they will be used. For instance, aluminum mirrors are commonly coated with silicon dioxide or magnesium fluoride. The reflectivity as a function of wavelength depends on both the thickness of the coating and on how it is applied.
For scientific optical work, dielectric mirrors are often used. These are glass (or sometimes other material) substrates on which one or more layers of dielectric material are deposited, to form an optical coating. By careful choice of the type and thickness of the dielectric layers, the range of wavelengths and amount of light reflected from the mirror can be specified. The best mirrors of this type can reflect >99.999% of the light (in a narrow range of wavelengths) which is incident on the mirror. Such mirrors are often used in lasers.
Although the most of mirrors are designed to reflect visible light, surfaces reflecting other forms of electromagnetic radiation are also called "mirrors". The mirrors for other ranges of electromagnetic waves are used in optics and astronomy. Mirrors for radio waves are important elements of radio telescopes.
A Mangin mirror is a combination lens and concave mirror and is widely used in optical instruments and even sometimes in cameras.
Some devices use two or more mirrors facing one another to generate multiple reflections:
The reflected images between these mirrors give the appearance of an infinite regress.
Due to its location in a steep-sided valley, the Italian town of Viganella gets no direct sunlight for seven weeks each winter. In 2006 a €100,000 computer-controlled mirror, 8×5 m, was installed to reflect sunlight into the town's piazza. In early 2007 the similarly situated village of Bondo, Switzerland, was considering applying this solution as well. Mirrors can be used to produce enhanced lighting effects in greenhouses or conservatories.
The softness of old mirrors is sometimes replicated by contemporary artisans for use in interior design. These reproduction antiqued mirrors are works of art and can bring color and texture to an otherwise hard, cold reflective surface. It is an artistic process that has been attempted by many and perfected by few.
Mirrors are often used in magic to create an illusion. One effect is called Pepper's ghost. Illuminated rotating disco balls covered with small mirrors are used to cast moving spots of light around a dance floor. Mirrors are employed in kaleidoscopes, personal entertainment devices invented in Scotland by sir David Brewster.
Painters depicting someone in front of a mirror often also show the person's reflection. This is a kind of abstraction—in most cases the angle of view is such that the person's reflection should not be visible. Similarly, in movies and still photography an actor or actress is often shown ostensibly looking at him or herself in the mirror, and yet the reflection faces the camera. In reality, the actor or actress sees only the camera and its operator in this case, not their own reflection.
It is a common superstition that someone who breaks a mirror will receive seven years of bad luck. One of the many reasons for this belief is that the mirror is believed to reflect part of the soul, therefore, breaking the mirror will break part of the soul. However, the soul is said to regenerate every seven years, thus coming back unbroken. To counter this one of many rituals has to be performed, the easiest of which is to stop the mirror from reflecting the broken soul by grinding it to dust. The belief might also simply originate from the high cost of mirrors in times gone past.
In days past it was customary in the southern United States to cover the mirrors in a house where the wake of a deceased person was being held. It was believed that the person's soul would become trapped in a mirror left uncovered. Mirrors falling from walls or otherwise breaking or cracking mysteriously were said to be haunted.
Another superstition claims it is bad luck to have two mirrors facing each other.
A staple of childhood slumber parties is the game Bloody Mary (folklore), which involves chanting "Bloody Mary" three times in a darkened room while staring into a mirror. There are many versions of the game, but the general idea is that "Mary" will appear in the mirror and attempt to harm or kill the person who has summoned her. Thanks to a series of popular horror movies based on a supernatural killer who haunted mirrors, the phrase "Candy Man" may be substituted for Mary.
Experiments have shown that only large-brained social animals are able to recognise that a mirror shows a reflection of themselves.
Animals that have shown they are able to use a mirror to study themselves:
An acoustic mirror is a passive device used to reflect and perhaps to focus sound waves. Acoustic mirrors were used for selective detection of sound waves, especially during World War 2. They were used for detection of enemy aircraft prior to the development of radar. Acoustic mirrors are used for remote probing of the atmosphere; they can be used to form a narrow diffraction-limited beam. They can also be used for underwater "imaging".
Active mirrors are mirrors that amplify the light they reflect. They are used to make disk lasers. The amplification is typically over a narrow range of wavelengths, and requires an external source of power.
An atomic mirror is a device which reflects matter waves. Usually, atomic mirrors work at grazing incidence. Such a mirror can be used for atomic interferometry and atomic holography. It has been proposed that they can be used for non-destructive imaging systems with nanometer resolution.
Cold mirrors are dielectric mirrors that reflect the entire visible light spectrum while efficiently transmitting infrared wavelengths. Conversely, hot mirrors reflect infrared light while allowing visible light to pass. These can be used to separate useful light from unneeded infrared to reduce heating of components in an optical device. They can also be used as dichroic beamsplitters.
X-ray mirrors produce specular reflection of X-rays. All known types work only at angles near grazing incidence, and only a small fraction of the rays are reflected.