REFRACTION AND OPTICAL INSTRUMENTS – Refraction, Total Internal Reflection, SOME NATURAL PHENOMENA DUE TO SUNLIGHT, The rainbow, Scattering of light, OPTICAL INSTRUMENTS (microscope and Telescope) (NCERT 12TH PHYSICS)


When a beam of light encounters another transparent medium, a part of light gets reflected back into the first medium while the rest enters the other. A ray of light represents a beam. The direction of propagation of an obliquely incident (0°< i < 90°) ray of light that enters the other medium, changes at the interface of the two media. This phenomenon is called refraction of light. Snell experimentally obtained the following laws of refraction:

(i) The incident ray, the refracted ray and the normal to the interface at the point of incidence, all lie in the same plane.

(ii) The ratio of the sine of the angle of incidence to the sine of angle of refraction is constant.

Remember that the angles of incidence (i ) and refraction (r ) are the angles that the incident and its refracted ray make with the normal, respectively.

Optical density should not be confused with mass density, which is mass per unit volume. It is possible that mass density of an optically denser medium may be less than that of an optically rarer medium (optical density is the ratio of the speed of light in two media). For example, turpentine and water. Mass density of turpentine is less than that of water but its optical density is higher.


When light travels from an optically denser medium to a rarer medium at the interface, it is partly reflected back into the same medium and partly refracted to the second medium. This reflection is called the internal reflection. When a ray of light enters from a denser medium to a rarer medium, it bends away from the normal, for example, the ray AO1 B. The incident ray AO1 is partially reflected (O1C) and partially transmitted (O1B) or refracted, the angle of refraction (r) being larger than the angle of incidence (i ). As the angle of incidence increases, so does the angle of refraction, till for the ray AO3, the angle of refraction is p/2. The refracted ray is bent so much away from the normal that it grazes the surface at the interface between the two media. This is shown by the ray AO3 D. If the angle of incidence is increased still further (e.g., the ray AO4), refraction is not possible, and the incident ray is totally reflected. This is called total internal reflection. When light gets reflected by a surface, normally some fraction of it gets transmitted. The reflected ray, therefore, is always less intense than the incident ray, howsoever smooth the reflecting surface may be. In total internal reflection, on the other hand, no transmission of light takes place.

A demonstration for total internal reflection

All optical phenomena can be demonstrated very easily with the use of a laser torch or pointer, which is easily available nowadays. Take a glass beaker with clear water in it. Add a few drops of milk or any other suspension to water and stir so that water becomes a little turbid. Take a laser pointer and shine its beam through the turbid water. You will find that the path of the beam inside the water shines brightly. Shine the beam from below the beaker such that it strikes at the upper water surface at the other end. Do you find that it undergoes partial reflection (which is seen as a spot on the table below) and partial refraction which comes out in the air and is seen as a spot on the roof; Now direct the laser beam from one side of the beaker such that it strikes the upper surface of water more obliquely. Adjust the direction of laser beam until you find the angle for which the refraction above the water surface is totally absent and the beam is totally reflected back to water. This is total internal reflection at its simplest.

Pour this water in a long test tube and shine the laser light from top. Adjust the direction of the laser beam such that it is totally internally reflected every time it strikes the walls of the tube. This is similar to what happens in optical fibres. Take care not to look into the laser beam directly and not to point it at anybody’s face.


The Interplay of light with things around us gives rise to several beautiful phenomena. The spectacles of colours that we see around us all the time is possible due to sunlight.

While studying dispersion of visible (or white) light by a prism and the electromagnetic spectrum, we got to know that colour is associated with the frequency of light or the wavelength of light in the given medium. In the visible spectrum, red light is at the long wavelength end (~700 nm) while the violet light is at the short wavelength end (~ 400 nm). Dispersion takes place because the refractive index of medium for different frequencies (colours) is different. For example, the bending of red component of white light is least while it is most for the violet. Equivalently, red light travels faster than violet light in a glass prism. The refractive indices is for different wavelength for crown glass and flint glass. Thick lenses could be assumed as made of many prisms, therefore, thick lenses show chromatic aberration due to dispersion of light. When white light passes through thick lenses, red and blue colours focus at different points. This phenomenon is known as chromatic aberration.

The variation of refractive index with wavelength may be more pronounced in some media than the other. In vacuum, of course, the speed of light is independent of wavelength. Thus, vacuum (or air approximately) is a non-dispersive medium in which all colours travel with the same speed. This also follows from the fact that sunlight reaches us in the form of white light and not as its components. On the other hand, glass is a dispersive medium. The blue of the sky, white clouds, the red-hue at sunrise and sunset, the rainbow, the brilliant colours of some pearls, shells, and wings of birds, are just a few of the natural wonders we are used to. We describe some of them here from the point of view of physics.

The rainbow

The rainbow is an example of the dispersion of sunlight by the water drops in the atmosphere. This is a phenomenon due to combined effect of dispersion, refraction and reflection of sunlight by spherical water droplets of rain. The conditions for observing a rainbow are that the Sun should be shining in one part of the sky (say near western horizon) while it is raining in the opposite part of the sky (say eastern horizon). An observer can therefore see a rainbow only when his back is towards the Sun. In order to understand the formation of rainbows, Sunlight is first refracted as it enters a raindrop, which causes the different wavelengths (colours) of white light to separate. Longer wangelength of light (red) are bent the least while the shorter wavelength (violet) are bent the most. Next, these component rays strike the inner surface of the water drop and get internally reflected if the angle between the refracted ray and normal to the drop surface is greater then the critical angle (48° in this case). The reflected light is refracted again when it comes out of the drop, as shown in the figure. It is found that the violet light emerges at an angle of 40° related to the incoming sunlight and red light emerges at an angle of 42°. For other colours, angles lie in between these two values.

 We see that red light from drop 1 and violet light from drop 2 reach the observer’s eye. The violet from drop 1 and red light from drop 2 are directed at level above or below the observer. Thus the observer sees a rainbow with red colour on the top and violet on the bottom. The primary rainbow is a result of three-step process, that is, refraction, reflection and refraction. When light rays undergoes two internal reflections inside a raindrop, instead of one as in the primary rainbow, a secondary rainbow is formed. It is due to four-step process. The intensity of light is reduced at the second reflection and hence the secondary rainbow is fainter than the primary rainbow. Further, the order of the colours is reversed in it as is clear.

Scattering of light

As sunlight travels through the earth’s atmosphere, it gets scattered (changes its direction) by the atmospheric particles. Light of shorter wavelengths is scattered much more than light of longer wavelengths. (The amount of scattering is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength. This is known as Rayleigh scattering). Hence, the bluish colour predominates in a clear sky, since blue has a shorter wavelength than red and is scattered much more strongly. In fact, violet gets scattered even more than blue, having a shorter wavelength. But since our eyes are more sensitive to blue than violet, we see the sky blue.

Large particles like dust and water droplets present in the atmosphere behave differently. The relevant quantity here is the relative size of the wavelength of light l, and the scatterer (of typical size, say, a). For a << l, one has Rayleigh scattering which is proportional to 1/l4. For a >> l, i.e., large scattering objects (for example, raindrops, large dust or ice particles) this is not true; all wavelengths are scattered nearly equally. Thus, clouds which have droplets of water with a >> l are generally white.

At sunset or sunrise, the sun’s rays have to pass through a larger distance in the atmosphere. Most of the blue and other shorter wavelengths are removed by scattering. The least scattered light reaching our eyes, therefore, the sun looks reddish. This explains the reddish appearance of the sun and full moon near the horizon.


A number of optical devices and instruments have been designed utilizing reflecting and refracting properties of mirrors, lenses and prisms. Periscope, kaleidoscope, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes are some examples of optical devices and instruments that are in common use. Our eye is, of course, one of the most important optical device the nature has endowed us with. We have already studied about the human eye in Class X. We now go on to describe the principles of working of the microscope and the telescope.

The microscope

A simple magnifier or microscope is a converging lens of small focal length. In order to use such a lens as a microscope, the lens is held near the object, one focal length away or less, and the eye is positioned close to the lens on the other side. The idea is to get an erect, magnified and virtual image of the object at a distance so that it can be viewed comfortably, i.e., at 25 cm or more. If the object is at a distance f, the image is at infinity. However, if the object is at a distance slightly less than the focal length of the lens, the image is virtual and closer than infinity. Although the closest comfortable distance for viewing the image is when it is at the near point (distance D @ 25 cm), it causes some strain on the eye. Therefore, the image formed at infinity is often considered most suitable for viewing by the relaxed eye.

A simple microscope has a limited maximum magnification (£ 9) for realistic focal lengths. For much larger magnifications, one uses two lenses, one compounding the effect of the other. This is known as a compound microscope. The lens nearest the object, called the objective, forms a real, inverted, magnified image of the object. This serves as the object for the second lens, the eyepiece, which functions essentially like a simple microscope or magnifier, produces the final image, which is enlarged and virtual. The first inverted image is thus near (at or within) the focal plane of the eyepiece, at a distance appropriate for final image formation at infinity, or a little closer for image formation at the near point. Clearly, the final image is inverted with respect to the original object.


The telescope is used to provide angular magnification of distant objects. It also has an objective and an eyepiece. But here, the objective has a large focal length and a much larger aperture than the eyepiece. Light from a distant object enters the objective and a real image is formed in the tube at its second focal point. The eyepiece magnifies this image producing a final inverted image. The magnifying power m is the ratio of the angle b subtended at the eye by the final image to the angle a which the object subtends at the lens or the eye.

The main considerations with an astronomical telescope are its light gathering power and its resolution or resolving power. The former clearly depends on the area of the objective. With larger diameters, fainter objects can be observed. The resolving power, or the ability to observe two objects distinctly, which are in very nearly the same direction, also depends on the diameter of the objective. So, the desirable aim in optical telescopes is to make them with objective of large diameter. The largest lens objective in use has a diameter of 40 inch (~1.02 m). It is at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, USA. Such big lenses tend to be very heavy and therefore, difficult to make and support by their edges. Further, it is rather difficult and expensive to make such large sized lenses which form images that are free from any kind of chromatic aberration and distortions.

For these reasons, modern telescopes use a concave mirror rather than a lens for the objective. Telescopes with mirror objectives are called reflecting telescopes. There is no chromatic aberration in a mirror. Mechanical support is much less of a problem since a mirror weighs much less than a lens of equivalent optical quality, and can be supported over its entire back surface, not just over its rim. One obvious problem with a reflecting telescope is that the objective mirror focusses light inside the telescope tube. One must have an eyepiece and the observer right there, obstructing some light (depending on the size of the observer cage). This is what is done in the very large 200 inch (~5.08 m) diameters, Mt. Palomar telescope, California. The viewer sits near the focal point of the mirror, in a small cage. Another solution to the problem is to deflect the light being focussed by another mirror. One such arrangement using a convex secondary mirror to focus the incident light, which now passes through a hole in the objective primary mirror. This is known as a Cassegrain telescope, after its inventor. It has the advantages of a large focal length in a short telescope. The largest telescope in India is in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu. It is a 2.34 m diameter reflecting telescope (Cassegrain). It was ground, polished, set up, and is being used by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore. The largest reflecting telescopes in the world are the pair of Keck telescopes in Hawaii, USA, with a reflector of 10 metre in diameter.

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