Nature has endowed the human eye (retina) with the sensitivity to detect electromagnetic waves within a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic radiation belonging to this region of the spectrum (wavelength of about 400 nm to 750 nm) is called light. It is mainly through light and the sense of vision that we know and interpret the world around us.

There are two things that we can intuitively mention about light from common experience. First, that it travels with enormous speed and second, that it travels in a straight line. It took some time for people to realise that the speed of light is finite and measurable. Its presently accepted value in vacuum is c = 2.99792458 × 108 m s–1. For many purposes, it suffices to take c = 3 × 108 m s–1. The speed of light in vacuum is the highest speed attainable in nature.

The intuitive notion that light travels in a straight line, that light is an electromagnetic wave of wavelength belonging to the visible part of the spectrum. How to reconcile the two facts? The answer is that the wavelength of light is very small compared to the size of ordinary objects that we encounter commonly (generally of the order of a few cm or larger). A light wave can be considered to travel from one point to another, along a straight line joining them. The path is called a ray of light, and a bundle of such rays constitutes a beam of light.

We consider the phenomena of reflection, refraction and dispersion of light, using the ray picture of light. Using the basic laws of reflection and refraction, we shall study the image formation by plane and spherical reflecting and refracting surfaces. We then go on to describe the construction and working of some important optical instruments, including the human eye.


Newton’s fundamental contributions to mathematics, mechanics, and gravitation often blind us to his deep experimental and theoretical study of light. He made pioneering contributions in the field of optics. He further developed the corpuscular model of light proposed by Descartes. It presumes that light energy is concentrated in tiny particles called corpuscles.

He further assumed that corpuscles of light were massless elastic particles. With his understanding of mechanics, he could come up with a simple model of reflection and refraction. It is a common observation that a ball bouncing from a smooth plane surface obeys the laws of reflection. When this is an elastic collision, the magnitude of the velocity remains the same. As the surface is smooth, there is no force acting parallel to the surface, so the component of momentum in this direction also remains the same. Only the component perpendicular to the surface, i.e., the normal component of the momentum, gets reversed in reflection. Newton argued that smooth surfaces like mirrors reflect the corpuscles in a similar manner. In order to explain the phenomena of refraction, Newton postulated that the speed of the corpuscles was greater in water or glass than in air. However, later on it was discovered that the speed of light is less in water or glass than in air.

In the field of optics, Newton – the experimenter, was greater than Newton – the theorist. He himself observed many phenomena, which were difficult to understand in terms of particle nature of light. For example, the colours observed due to a thin film of oil on water. Property of partial reflection of light is yet another such example. Everyone who has looked into the water in a pond sees image of the face in it, but also sees the bottom of the pond. Newton argued that some of the corpuscles, which fall on the water, get reflected and some get transmitted. But what property could distinguish these two kinds of corpuscles? Newton had to postulate some kind of unpredictable, chance phenomenon, which decided whether an individual corpuscle would be reflected or not. In explaining other phenomena, however, the corpuscles were presumed to behave as if they are identical. Such a dilemma does not occur in the wave picture of light. An incoming wave can be divided into two weaker waves at the boundary between air and water.


We are familiar with the laws of reflection. The angle of reflection (i.e., the angle between reflected ray and the normal to the reflecting surface or the mirror) equals the angle of incidence (angle between incident ray and the normal). Also that the incident ray, reflected ray and the normal to the reflecting surface at the point of incidence lie in the same plane. These laws are valid at each point on any reflecting surface whether plane or curved. However, we shall restrict our discussion to the special case of curved surfaces, that is, spherical surfaces. The normal in this case is to be taken as normal to the tangent to surface at the point of incidence. That is, the normal is along the radius, the line joining the centre of curvature of the mirror to the point of incidence.

We have already studied that the geometric centre of a spherical mirror is called its pole while that of a spherical lens is called its optical centre. The line joining the pole and the centre of curvature of the spherical mirror is known as the principal axis. In the case of spherical lenses, the principal axis is the line joining the optical centre with its principal focus as you will see later.

Sign convention

To derive the relevant formulae for reflection by spherical mirrors and refraction by spherical lenses, we must first adopt a sign convention for measuring distances. In this book, we shall follow the Cartesian sign convention. According to this convention, all distances are measured From the pole of the mirror or the optical centre of the lens. The distances measured in the same direction as the incident light are taken as positive and those measured in the direction opposite to the direction of incident light are taken as negative. The heights measured upwards with respect to x-axis and normal to the principal axis (x-axis) of the mirror/lens are taken as positive. The heights measured downwards are taken as negative. With a common accepted convention, it turns out that a single formula for spherical mirrors and a single formula for spherical lenses can handle all different cases.

Focal length of spherical mirrors

When a parallel beam of light is incident on (a) a concave mirror, and (b) a convex mirror. We assume that the rays are paraxial, i.e., they are incident at points close to the pole P of the mirror and make small angles with the principal axis. The reflected rays converge at a point F on the principal axis of a concave mirror.

For a convex mirror, the reflected rays appear to diverge from a point F on its principal axis. The point F is called the principal focus of the mirror. If the parallel paraxial beam of light were incident, making some angle with the principal axis, the reflected rays would converge (or appear to diverge) from a point in a plane through F normal to the principal axis. This is called the focal plane of the mirror.

The mirror equation

If rays emanating from a point actually meet at another point after reflection and/or refraction, that point is called the image of the first point. The image is real if the rays actually converge to the point; it is virtual if the rays do not  actually meet but appear to diverge from the point when produced backwards. An image is thus a point-to-point correspondence with the object established through reflection and/or refraction. In principle, we can take any two rays emanating from a point on an object, trace their  paths, find their point of intersection and thus, obtain the image of the point due to reflection at a spherical mirror. In practice, however, it is convenient to choose any two of the following rays:

(i) The ray from the point which is parallel to the principal axis. The reflected ray goes through the focus of the mirror.

(ii) The ray passing through the centre of curvature of a concave mirror or appearing to pass through it for a convex mirror. The reflected ray simply retraces the path.

(iii) The ray passing through (or directed towards) the focus of the concave mirror or appearing to pass through (or directed towards) the focus of a convex mirror. The reflected ray is parallel to the principal axis.

(iv) The ray incident at any angle at the pole. The reflected ray follows laws of reflection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Spread the word