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Refraction is the change in direction of a wave due to a change in its speed. This is most commonly observed when a wave passes from one medium to another at any angle other than 90° or 0°. Refraction of light is the most commonly observed phenomenon, but any type of wave can refract when it interacts with a medium, for example when sound waves pass from one medium into another or when water waves move into water of a different depth. Refraction is described by Snell's law, which states that the angle of incidence θ1 is related to the angle of refraction θ2 by

where v1 and v2 are the wave velocities in the respective media, and n1 and n2 the refractive indices. In general, the incident wave is partially refracted and partially reflected; the details of this behavior are described by the Fresnel equations.



In optics, refraction occurs when waves travel from a medium with a given refractive index to a medium with another at an angle. At the boundary between the media, the wave's phase velocity is altered, usually causing a change in direction. Its wavelength increases or decreases but its frequency remains constant. For example, a light ray will refract as it enters and leaves glass, assuming there is a change in refractive index. A ray traveling along the normal (perpendicular to the boundary) will change speed, but not direction. Refraction still occurs in this case. Understanding of this concept led to the invention of lenses and the refracting telescope. Refraction can be seen when looking into a bowl of water. Air has a refractive index of about 1.0003, and water has a refractive index of about 1.33. If a person looks at a straight object, such as a pencil or straw, which is placed at a slant, partially in the water, the object appears to bend at the water's surface. This is due to the bending of light rays as they move from the water to the air. Once the rays reach the eye, the eye traces them back as straight lines (lines of sight). The lines of sight (shown as dashed lines) intersect at a higher position than where the actual rays originated. This causes the pencil to appear higher and the water to appear shallower than it really is. The depth that the water appears to be when viewed from above is known as the apparent depth. This is an important consideration for spearfishing from the surface because it will make the target fish appear to be in a different place, and the fisher must aim lower to catch the fish.

The diagram on the right shows an example of refraction in water waves. Ripples travel from the left and pass over a shallower region inclined at an angle to the wavefront. The waves travel more slowly in the shallower water, so the wavelength decreases and the wave bends at the boundary. The dotted line represents the normal to the boundary. The dashed line represents the original direction of the waves. This phenomenon explains why waves on a shoreline tend to strike the shore close to a perpendicular angle. As the waves travel from deep water into shallower water near the shore, they are refracted from their original direction of travel to an angle more normal to the shoreline.[1] Refraction is also responsible for rainbows and for the splitting of white light into a rainbow-spectrum as it passes through a glass prism. Glass has a higher refractive index than air. When a beam of white light passes from air into a material having an index of refraction that varies with frequency, a phenomenon known as dispersion occurs, in which different coloured components of the white light are refracted at different angles, i.e., they bend by different amounts at the interface, so that they become separated. The different colors correspond to different frequencies.

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