Q:

What causes light refraction?

A:

Refraction is caused by light passing from one medium to another (from air to water, for example) and experiencing a change in speed. A fisherman looking into water to spear a fish will have to remember that refraction will distort the image he sees under the water's surface.

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Credit: Peter Roberts CC-BY-2.0

One of the reasons that a water-distorted image is such a good example of light refraction is not only because it is very easy to see and understand but also because air and water have a different refractive density, or optical index. This is a fancy way of saying that light waves travel at a different speed through air than they do through water, so when a light wave travels from air into water, or from water out into air, it will experience distortion because of the differences between the two media.

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Related Questions

• A:

The flickering or twinkling effect of lights when observed from a distance is caused by anomalous refraction as light passes through air, schlieren, where temperatures and densities vary. The technical term for this phenomenon is called "scintillation," and it refers to the rapid changes in the position and color of a distant object.

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• A:

A pencil looks bent in water because of a phenomenon called refraction. When light enters water, it cannot move as fast as it does in air. As light enters water at an angle, it bends away from its original path, and this makes the image look bent.

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• A:

When light travels in a vacuum, its speed is 186,282 miles per second. The fastest aircraft, which is the Boeing-43 scramjet, has a speed of 7,546 miles per hour. If these two speeds are compared, the jet's speed is approximately 0.0004 percent that of light.