Explainer: Reflection, refraction and the power of lenses

A prism causes incoming light to bend by different amounts, depending on the wavelength — or color — of that light. As light passes through the prism and exits on the other side, it spreads out into a rainbow.

Ekaterina Demidova/Moment/Getty Images 1st Surface Mirror

Explainer: Reflection, refraction and the power of lenses

Microscopes, telescopes and eyeglasses. All of these work by manipulating the movement of light.

When waves of light hit a smooth surface, such as a mirror, they reflect off of it. They also bend, or refract, when they move between environments of different densities, such as when light passes from air into and through a glass lens. Together, these basic properties of light allow scientists to design lenses and mirrors to suit their needs — whether it’s to peer across the cosmos or deep inside a cell.

Look in a mirror and you’ll see your reflection. The law of reflection is simple: Whatever angle a beam of light makes as it collides with a mirror is the same angle it will have as it bounces off the mirror’s surface. If you shine a flashlight at a 45-degree angle onto your bathroom mirror, it will bounce off at a 45-degree angle. When you see your reflection, the light shining on your illuminated face hits the mirror dead-on, so it bounces right back to your eyes.

This only works because a mirror is a polished surface that’s extremely smooth — and therefore reflective. Its smoothness makes all of the light that hits it from a certain angle bounce off in the same direction. The surface of a painted wall in your bedroom, in contrast, is so bumpy that it doesn’t reflect very well. Light that hits the wall will reflect off those bumps, bouncing off in a mix of different directions. That’s why most walls look dull, not shiny.

You might have noticed that inside flashlights and headlights, there’s a single, small light bulb with a curved mirror behind it. That curve collects the light coming off the bulb in many different directions and focuses it into a strong beam that leaves in one direction: outward. Curved mirrors are extremely effective at focusing beams of light.

A telescope’s mirror works the same way. It focuses the incoming light waves from a distant object, like a star, into a single point of light that’s now bright enough for an astronomer to see.

Weekly updates to help you use Science News Explores in the learning environment

Thank you for signing up!

There was a problem signing you up.

You know how a straw appears to bend as it sits in a glass of water? That’s due to refraction. The law of refraction states that light waves will bend when they move from one medium (such as air) to another (such as water or glass). This is because each medium has a different density, also known as its “optical thickness.”

Imagine running along a beach. If you start running on a concrete path, you can sprint fairly quickly. As soon as you cross onto sand, you slow down. Even if you’re trying to move your feet at the same speed as before, you can’t. You’ll slow even more as you try to keep running through the water. The “thickness” of each surface you’re now running through — sand or water — slows you down compared to when your feet were moving through air.

Light, too, changes speed in different mediums. And since light travels in waves, those waves will bend as they change their speed.

Back to that straw in a glass of water: If you look through the side of the glass, the straw will look like a zigzag. Or, if you’ve ever placed a diving ring at the bottom of a shallow pool and attempted to grab it, you’ll have noticed the ring isn’t exactly where it appears to be. The bending of light rays causes the ring to look as if it’s located a short distance from its actual spot.

The effects of this bending are greater or smaller depending on the light’s wavelength, or color. Shorter wavelengths, such as blue and violet, bend more than longer ones, such as red.

This is what causes the rainbow effect as light passes through a prism. It also explains why red is always the uppermost color in a rainbow and violet the lowermost hue. White light entering the prism contains all different colors of light. Red light waves bend the least, so their path stays closer to a straight line. That leaves red at the top of the rainbow. Violet light waves bend the most when passing through the prism, so that hue dips down to the bottom. The other colors of the rainbow end up in between red and violet, based on how much their waves bend.

Reflection and refraction can work together — often with awesome results. Consider the bending of the sun’s light as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere at a low angle. This tends to happen at sunrise or sunset. Sunlight’s bending, or refracting, paints clouds near the horizon in an array of red and orange hues.

You may have also noticed that the most spectacular sunsets happen when the air is either dusty or moist. In those cases, sunlight is refracted by Earth’s atmosphere and reflected around by particles of dust and water vapor.

The same thing happens in rainbows. As sunlight enters each individual raindrop, the ray of light refracts as it moves from the air to the water of the droplet. Once inside the raindrop, the light actually reflects off the inside of the drop. It bounces once, then begins to head back out of the raindrop. But as the light passes from inside the drop back into the air again, it refracts one more time.

That’s two refractions plus one internal reflection.

Light passing through raindrops forms a rainbow’s distinct arc for the same reason light passing through a prism does. Red forms the outermost arc and blue the innermost one. As the colors splay out, we get to delight in the beauty of those smeared hues. (A double rainbow happens when the light bounces twice inside each raindrop. Two refractions plus two internal reflections. That reverses the order of the colors in the second rainbow.)

Have you ever wondered why we don’t see rainbows in the snow like we do in rain? Maybe it makes sense now. Rainbows depend on the almost-spherical shape of water droplets. Snow is water, too, but its crystals have a completely different shape. That’s why snow can’t produce the same refraction-reflection-refraction pattern that raindrops do.

Lenses are tools that take advantage of light’s ability to bend. By carefully shaping a piece of glass, optical scientists can design lenses that focus light to make clear images. To magnify the appearance of an object, designers often combine a series of lenses.

Most lenses are made from glass that has been ground into a very precise shape with a smooth surface. The starting slab of glass looks like a thick pancake. By the time it’s ground into a lens, its shape will be very different.

Convex lenses are thicker in the middle than at their edges. They bend an incoming beam of light to a single focal point.

Concave lenses do the opposite. Thicker on the outside than at their center, they spread out a beam of light. Both types of lenses are useful in microscopes, telescopes, binoculars and eyeglasses. Combinations of these shapes allow optical scientists to direct a beam of light into any path that’s needed.

Mirrors, too, can be shaped to modify the path light takes. If you’ve ever looked at your reflection in carnival mirrors, they might have made you appear tall and skinny, short and rounded or distorted in other ways.

Combining mirrors and lenses can also create powerful shafts of light, such as those beamed by a lighthouse.

In one of the universe’s most magnificent tricks, intense gravity can act like a lens.

If an extremely massive object — such as a galaxy or a black hole — lies between an astronomer and the distant star they are looking at, that star can appear to be in a false spot (much like the ring at the bottom of a pool). The mass of the galaxy actually warps the space around it. As a result, the beam of light from that distant star bends with the space it’s moving through. The star might now even show up on the astronomer’s image as multiple identical appearances of itself. Or it might look like smeared arcs of light. Sometimes, if the alignment is just right, that light can form a perfect circle.

It’s just as weird as the light tricks of a funhouse mirror — but on a cosmic scale.

angle: The space (usually measured in degrees) between two intersecting lines or surfaces at or close to the point where they meet.

arc: A curve, often mapping out what appears to be part of a circle.

array: A broad and organized group of objects. Sometimes they are instruments placed in a systematic fashion to collect information in a coordinated way. Other times, an array can refer to things that are laid out or displayed in a way that can make a broad range of related things, such as colors, visible at once. The term can even apply to a range of options or choices.

astronomer: A scientist who works in the field of research that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe.

atmosphere: The envelope of gases surrounding Earth, another planet or a moon.

black hole: A region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation (including light) can escape.

cloud: A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents.  

concave: A term for the shape of a surface that is rounded somewhat, like the inside of a bowl.

concrete: To be solid and real. (in construction) A simple, two-part building material. One part is made of sand or ground-up bits of rock. The other is made of cement, which hardens and helps bind the grains of material together.

convex: A surface that possesses a shape that is rounded outward.

cosmos: (adj. cosmic) A term that refers to the universe and everything within it.

degree: (in geometry) A unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the circumference of a circle.

density: The measure of how condensed some object is, found by dividing its mass by its volume.

environment: The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

focal point: The spot where several points converge or where a beam narrows to a point.

focus: (in physics) The point at which rays (of light or heat for example) converge sometimes with the aid of a lens. (In vision, verb, "to focus") The action a person's eyes take to adapt to light and distance, enabling them to see objects clearly.

galaxy: A group of stars — and usually invisible, mysterious dark matter — all held together by gravity. Giant galaxies, such as the Milky Way, often have more than 100 billion stars. The dimmest galaxies may have just a few thousand. Some galaxies also have gas and dust from which they make new stars.

gravity: The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

hue: A color or shade of some color.

lens: (in biology) A transparent part of the eye behind the colored iris that focuses incoming light onto the light-absorbing membrane at the back of the eyeball. (in physics) A transparent material that can either focus or spread out parallel rays of light as they pass through it. (in optics) A curved piece of transparent material (such as glass) that bends incoming light in such a way as to focus it at a particular point in space. Or something, such as gravity, that can mimic some of the light bending attributes of a physical lens. 

magnify: To increase in apparent size or number of something.

mass: A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

microscope: An instrument used to view objects, like bacteria, or the single cells of plants or animals, that are too small to be visible to the unaided eye.

optical: An adjective that refers to light or vision.

particle: A minute amount of something.

peer: (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

point: (in mathematics) A precise point in space that is so small that it has no size. It merely has an address.

prism: A triangular wedge of glass or another clear substance that can bend the components of white light into a rainbow-like succession of colored bands. (v.) To separate light into its component hues.

rainbow: An arc of color displayed across the sky during or just after a rain. It’s caused when water droplets in the atmosphere bend (or diffract) white sunlight into a number of its component hues: usually red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

ray: (in mathematics) A line that has a defined endpoint on one side, but the other side continues on forever. 

reflective: (v. reflect; n. reflection) Adjective that refers to the ability of something to reflect light strongly. Such objects can produce a strong bright glare when sunlight bounces off of them. Examples of reflective objects include a mirror, a smooth metal can, a car window, a glass bottle, ice, snow or the watery surface of a lake.

refract: (n. refraction) To change the direction of light (or any other wave) as it passes through some material. For example, the path of light leaving water and entering air will bend, making partially submerged objects to appear to bend at the water’s surface.

star: The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become hot enough, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

telescope: Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

warp: A change in the shape, usually due to some twisting or curving in a normally flat surface or plane. A piece of wet lumber may warp as it dries unevenly, causing it to bow or show a slight twist.

water vapor: Water in its gaseous state, capable of being suspended in the air.

wave: A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.

wavelength: The distance between one peak and the next in a series of waves, or the distance between one trough and the next. It’s also one of the “yardsticks” used to measure radiation. Visible light — which, like all electromagnetic radiation, travels in waves — includes wavelengths between about 380 nanometers (violet) and about 740 nanometers (red). Radiation with wavelengths shorter than visible light includes gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light. Longer-wavelength radiation includes infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.

Trisha Muro has always love d stargazing and writing. Now, she does both! She loves to share her enthusiasm about the wonders of the universe.

Free educator resources are available for this article. Register to access:

Already Registered? Enter your e-mail address above.

HS-PS4-1, MS-ESS1-2, MS-PS4-1, MS-PS4-2

Founded in 2003, Science News Explores is a free, award-winning online publication dedicated to providing age-appropriate science news to learners, parents and educators. The publication, as well as Science News magazine, are published by the Society for Science, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education.

Explainer: Reflection, refraction and the power of lenses

Graticule For Scale © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2023. All rights reserved.