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Describe Refraction and Define Refractive Index

In this worksheet, students will explore how light changes direction at the boundaries of two different substances and how this creates effects, such as mirages. Students will also define the term refractive index and learn about its significance.

'Describe Refraction and Define Refractive Index' worksheet

Key stage:  KS 3

Year:  Year 9 Science worksheets

Curriculum topic:   Physics: Waves

Curriculum subtopic:   Light Waves

Difficulty level:  

Worksheet Overview

What is refraction?

When light goes through different transparent substances, (for example, from air to water), it appears to bend or change direction. This phenomenon is called refraction. Refraction happens at the interface of two substances, i.e. where the substances meet (their boundaries). However, if light passes through the interface vertically (at a 90 degree angle), refraction does not occur.


water mirage on horizon


The straw in the picture below looks broken because of refraction. Additionally, on sunny days, it looks like there is water on the road ahead when travelling by car, as shown in the photograph above. This is also due to refraction, caused by differences in air temperature making the light change direction. It is called an optical illusion or mirage.

Straw refracted in water


Why does light refract?

Water or glass are more dense materials than air, so light slows down when it travels from air into glass or water (and it speeds up again when it travels from glass or water back into the air). The change of speed results in a change of direction. This is why the light bends. The diagram below shows the process of a beam of light refracting.




You will notice a dotted line making a right angle with the surface. This is called the normal, and is an imaginary line. We use it to measure the angles of incidence and refraction. These are labelled A to D on the diagrams.  


The green line represents light in water, and the red line is light in air. In the first diagram, light slows down as it travels from air to water (because water is more optically dense than air), causing it to slow down and bend towards the normal. The angle of incidence (A) is greater than the angle of refraction (B).


The exact opposite effect happens when light travels from water back into the air: the light speeds up and bends away from the normal. The angle of incidence (C) is less than the angle of refraction (D).


Refractive index

A property of transparent materials is called refractive index. This is a measure of how much a material slows down light. Materials with a greater refractive index will slow down light by a greater amount.


The refractive index of a material is calculated by dividing the speed of light in a vacuum (which is always 300,000,000 m/s), by the speed of light in the material. As a formula, it is:


n = c ÷  v 


where n = refractive index, c = speed of light in a vacuum, v = speed of light in material.


For example, if we want to calculate the refractive index of a sample of glass which makes light travel at 200,000,000 m/s, we would do the following calculation:


n = c ÷  v 

n = 300,000,000 ÷  200,000,000 

n = 1.5


So, this sample of glass has a refractive index of 1.5. You will notice that refractive index has no units - this is because we have divided a speed by another speed, and so the units cancel out.


A material cannot have a refractive index of less than 1 because this would require a beam to travel faster than the speed of light inside the material, which is impossible.



To sum up, refraction is the bending of light rays caused by the change in their speed as they pass from one transparent medium to another. This causes objects to appear bent or broken. The amount the light bends is determined by the 'optical density' of the material (which is also called refractive index).


Are you ready to try some questions now? Remember that you can look back at this page at any point by clicking on the red help button on the screen.


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