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Table of Contents

Section 7.1 - Light Rays
Section 7.2 - Applications
Section 7.3 - The Principle of Least Time for Reflection (optional)
Section 7.4 - Images by Reflection


Chapter 7. The Ray Model of Light

7.1 Light Rays


a / Light from a candle is bumped off course by a piece of glass. Inserting the glass causes the apparent location of the candle to shift. The same effect can be produced by taking off your eyeglasses and looking at which you see near the edge of the lens, but a flat piece of glass works just as well as a lens for this purpose.


b / An image of Jupiter and its moon Io (left) from the Cassini probe.


c / The earth is moving toward Jupiter and Io. Since the distance is shrinking, it is taking less and less time for the light to get to us from Io, and Io appears to circle Jupiter more quickly than normal. Six months later, the earth will be on the opposite side of the sun, and receding from Jupiter and Io, so Io will appear to revolve around Jupiter more slowly.


d / Two self-portraits of the author, one taken in a mirror and one with a piece of aluminum foil.


e / Specular and diffuse reflection.


f / Light bounces off of the ceiling, then off of the book.


i / The geometry of specular reflection.

Ads for one Macintosh computer bragged that it could do an arithmetic calculation in less time than it took for the light to get from the screen to your eye. We find this impressive because of the contrast between the speed of light and the speeds at which we interact with physical objects in our environment. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us, then, that Newton succeeded so well in explaining the motion of objects, but was far less successful with the study of light.

The climax of our study of electricity and magnetism was discovery that light is an electromagnetic wave. Knowing this, however, is not the same as knowing everything about eyes and telescopes. In fact, the full description of light as a wave can be rather cumbersome. In this chapter, we'll instead make use of a simpler model of light, the ray model, which does a fine job in most practical situations. Not only that, but we'll even backtrack a little and start with a discussion of basic ideas about light and vision that predated the discovery of electromagnetic waves.

The nature of light

The cause and effect relationship in vision

Despite its title, this chapter is far from your first look at light. That familiarity might seem like an advantage, but most people have never thought carefully about light and vision. Even smart people who have thought hard about vision have come up with incorrect ideas. The ancient Greeks, Arabs and Chinese had theories of light and vision, all of which were mostly wrong, and all of which were accepted for thousands of years.

One thing the ancients did get right is that there is a distinction between objects that emit light and objects that don't. When you see a leaf in the forest, it's because three different objects are doing their jobs: the leaf, the eye, and the sun. But luminous objects like the sun, a flame, or the filament of a light bulb can be seen by the eye without the presence of a third object. Emission of light is often, but not always, associated with heat. In modern times, we are familiar with a variety of objects that glow without being heated, including fluorescent lights and glow-in-the-dark toys.

How do we see luminous objects? The Greek philosophers Pythagoras (b. ca. 560 BC) and Empedocles of Acragas (b. ca. 492 BC), who unfortunately were very influential, claimed that when you looked at a candle flame, the flame and your eye were both sending out some kind of mysterious stuff, and when your eye's stuff collided with the candle's stuff, the candle would become evident to your sense of sight.

Bizarre as the Greek “collision of stuff theory” might seem, it had a couple of good features. It explained why both the candle and your eye had to be present for your sense of sight to function. The theory could also easily be expanded to explain how we see nonluminous objects. If a leaf, for instance, happened to be present at the site of the collision between your eye's stuff and the candle's stuff, then the leaf would be stimulated to express its green nature, allowing you to perceive it as green.

Modern people might feel uneasy about this theory, since it suggests that greenness exists only for our seeing convenience, implying a human precedence over natural phenomena. Nowadays, people would expect the cause and effect relationship in vision to be the other way around, with the leaf doing something to our eye rather than our eye doing something to the leaf. But how can you tell? The most common way of distinguishing cause from effect is to determine which happened first, but the process of seeing seems to occur too quickly to determine the order in which things happened. Certainly there is no obvious time lag between the moment when you move your head and the moment when your reflection in the mirror moves.

Today, photography provides the simplest experimental evidence that nothing has to be emitted from your eye and hit the leaf in order to make it “greenify.” A camera can take a picture of a leaf even if there are no eyes anywhere nearby. Since the leaf appears green regardless of whether it is being sensed by a camera, your eye, or an insect's eye, it seems to make more sense to say that the leaf's greenness is the cause, and something happening in the camera or eye is the effect.

Light is a thing, and it travels from one point to another.

Another issue that few people have considered is whether a candle's flame simply affects your eye directly, or whether it sends out light which then gets into your eye. Again, the rapidity of the effect makes it difficult to tell what's happening. If someone throws a rock at you, you can see the rock on its way to your body, and you can tell that the person affected you by sending a material substance your way, rather than just harming you directly with an arm motion, which would be known as “action at a distance.” It is not easy to do a similar observation to see whether there is some “stuff” that travels from the candle to your eye, or whether it is a case of action at a distance.

Our description of the physics of material objects included both action at a distance (e.g., the earth's gravitational force on a falling object) and contact forces such as friction.

One piece of evidence that the candle sends out stuff that travels to your eye is that as in figure a, intervening transparent substances can make the candle appear to be in the wrong location, suggesting that light is a thing that can be bumped off course. Many people would dismiss this kind of observation as an optical illusion, however. (Some optical illusions are purely neurological or psychological effects, although some others, including this one, turn out to be caused by the behavior of light itself.)

A more convincing way to decide in which category light belongs is to find out if it takes time to get from the candle to your eye; in Newton's picture of the universe, action at a distance was supposed to be instantaneous. The fact that we speak casually today of “the speed of light” implies that at some point in history, somebody succeeded in showing that light did not travel infinitely fast. Galileo tried, and failed, to detect a finite speed for light, by arranging with a person in a distant tower to signal back and forth with lanterns. Galileo uncovered his lantern, and when the other person saw the light, he uncovered his lantern. Galileo was unable to measure any time lag that was significant compared to the limitations of human reflexes.

The first person to prove that light's speed was finite, and to determine it numerically, was Ole Roemer, in a series of measurements around the year 1675. Roemer observed Io, one of Jupiter's moons, over a period of several years. Since Io presumably took the same amount of time to complete each orbit of Jupiter, it could be thought of as a very distant, very accurate clock. A practical and accurate pendulum clock had recently been invented, so Roemer could check whether the ratio of the two clocks' cycles, about 42.5 hours to 1 orbit, stayed exactly constant or changed a little. If the process of seeing the distant moon was instantaneous, there would be no reason for the two to get out of step. Even if the speed of light was finite, you might expect that the result would be only to offset one cycle relative to the other. The earth does not, however, stay at a constant distance from Jupiter and its moons. Since the distance is changing gradually due to the two planets' orbital motions, a finite speed of light would make the “Io clock” appear to run faster as the planets drew near each other, and more slowly as their separation increased. Roemer did find a variation in the apparent speed of Io's orbits, which caused Io's eclipses by Jupiter (the moments when Io passed in front of or behind Jupiter) to occur about 7 minutes early when the earth was closest to Jupiter, and 7 minutes late when it was farthest. Based on these measurements, Roemer estimated the speed of light to be approximately \(2\times10^8\) m/s, which is in the right ballpark compared to modern measurements of \(3\times10^8\) m/s. (I'm not sure whether the fairly large experimental error was mainly due to imprecise knowledge of the radius of the earth's orbit or limitations in the reliability of pendulum clocks.)

Light can travel through a vacuum.

Many people are confused by the relationship between sound and light. Although we use different organs to sense them, there are some similarities. For instance, both light and sound are typically emitted in all directions by their sources. Musicians even use visual metaphors like “tone color,” or “a bright timbre” to describe sound. One way to see that they are clearly different phenomena is to note their very different velocities. Sure, both are pretty fast compared to a flying arrow or a galloping horse, but as we've seen, the speed of light is so great as to appear instantaneous in most situations. The speed of sound, however, can easily be observed just by watching a group of schoolchildren a hundred feet away as they clap their hands to a song. There is an obvious delay between when you see their palms come together and when you hear the clap.

The fundamental distinction between sound and light is that sound is an oscillation in air pressure, so it requires air (or some other medium such as water) in which to travel. Today, we know that outer space is a vacuum, so the fact that we get light from the sun, moon and stars clearly shows that air is not necessary for the propagation of light.

Interaction of light with matter

Absorption of light

The reason why the sun feels warm on your skin is that the sunlight is being absorbed, and the light energy is being transformed into heat energy. The same happens with artificial light, so the net result of leaving a light turned on is to heat the room. It doesn't matter whether the source of the light is hot, like the sun, a flame, or an incandescent light bulb, or cool, like a fluorescent bulb. (If your house has electric heat, then there is absolutely no point in fastidiously turning off lights in the winter; the lights will help to heat the house at the same dollar rate as the electric heater.)

This process of heating by absorption is entirely different from heating by thermal conduction, as when an electric stove heats spaghetti sauce through a pan. Heat can only be conducted through matter, but there is vacuum between us and the sun, or between us and the filament of an incandescent bulb. Also, heat conduction can only transfer heat energy from a hotter object to a colder one, but a cool fluorescent bulb is perfectly capable of heating something that had already started out being warmer than the bulb itself.

How we see nonluminous objects

Not all the light energy that hits an object is transformed into heat. Some is reflected, and this leads us to the question of how we see nonluminous objects. If you ask the average person how we see a light bulb, the most likely answer is “The light bulb makes light, which hits our eyes.” But if you ask how we see a book, they are likely to say “The bulb lights up the room, and that lets me see the book.” All mention of light actually entering our eyes has mysteriously disappeared.

Most people would disagree if you told them that light was reflected from the book to the eye, because they think of reflection as something that mirrors do, not something that a book does. They associate reflection with the formation of a reflected image, which does not seem to appear in a piece of paper.

Imagine that you are looking at your reflection in a nice smooth piece of aluminum foil, fresh off the roll. You perceive a face, not a piece of metal. Perhaps you also see the bright reflection of a lamp over your shoulder behind you. Now imagine that the foil is just a little bit less smooth. The different parts of the image are now a little bit out of alignment with each other. Your brain can still recognize a face and a lamp, but it's a little scrambled, like a Picasso painting. Now suppose you use a piece of aluminum foil that has been crumpled up and then flattened out again. The parts of the image are so scrambled that you cannot recognize an image. Instead, your brain tells you you're looking at a rough, silvery surface.

Mirror-like reflection at a specific angle is known as specular reflection, and random reflection in many directions is called diffuse reflection. Diffuse reflection is how we see nonluminous objects. Specular reflection only allows us to see images of objects other than the one doing the reflecting. In top part of figure d, imagine that the rays of light are coming from the sun. If you are looking down at the reflecting surface, there is no way for your eye-brain system to tell that the rays are not really coming from a sun down below you.

Figure f shows another example of how we can't avoid the conclusion that light bounces off of things other than mirrors. The lamp is one I have in my house. It has a bright bulb, housed in a completely opaque bowl-shaped metal shade. The only way light can get out of the lamp is by going up out of the top of the bowl. The fact that I can read a book in the position shown in the figure means that light must be bouncing off of the ceiling, then bouncing off of the book, then finally getting to my eye.

This is where the shortcomings of the Greek theory of vision become glaringly obvious. In the Greek theory, the light from the bulb and my mysterious “eye rays” are both supposed to go to the book, where they collide, allowing me to see the book. But we now have a total of four objects: lamp, eye, book, and ceiling. Where does the ceiling come in? Does it also send out its own mysterious “ceiling rays,” contributing to a three-way collision at the book? That would just be too bizarre to believe!

The differences among white, black, and the various shades of gray in between is a matter of what percentage of the light they absorb and what percentage they reflect. That's why light-colored clothing is more comfortable in the summer, and light-colored upholstery in a car stays cooler that dark upholstery.

The ray model of light

Models of light

Note how I've been casually diagramming the motion of light with pictures showing light rays as lines on the page. Figure g shows some more examples. More formally, this is known as the ray model of light. The ray model of light seems natural once we convince ourselves that light travels through space, and observe phenomena like sunbeams coming through holes in clouds. If you've read chapter 6, you've already been introduced to the concept of light as an electromagnetic wave, and you know that the ray model is not the ultimate truth about light, but the ray model is simpler, and in any case science always deals with models of reality, not the ultimate nature of reality. Figure h summarizes three models of light.


g / Examples of ray diagrams.


h / Three models of light.

The ray model is a generic one. By using it we can discuss the path taken by the light, without committing ourselves to any specific description of what it is that is moving along that path. We will use the nice simple ray model for rest of this chapter, and with it we can analyze a great many devices and phenomena.

Note that the statements about the applicability of the various models are only rough guides. For instance, wave interference effects are often detectable, if small, when light passes around an obstacle that is quite a bit bigger than a wavelength. Also, the criterion for when we need the particle model really has more to do with energy scales than distance scales, although the two turn out to be related.

The alert reader may have noticed that the wave model is required at scales smaller than a wavelength of light (on the order of a micrometer for visible light), and the particle model is demanded on the atomic scale or lower (a typical atom being a nanometer or so in size). This implies that at the smallest scales we need both the wave model and the particle model. They appear incompatible, so how can we simultaneously use both? The answer is that they are not as incompatible as they seem. Light is both a wave and a particle, and a full understanding of this apparently nonsensical statement would lead us to a discussion of the quantum physics revolution of the twentieth century.

Geometry of specular reflection

Specular reflection obeys two simple geometrical rules:

The two angles can be defined either with respect to the normal, like angles B and C in the figure, or with respect to the reflecting surface, like angles A and D. There is a convention of several hundred years' standing that one measures the angles with respect to the normal, but the rule about equal angles can logically be stated either as B=C or as A=D.


Each of these diagrams is supposed to show two different rays being reflected from the same point on the same mirror. Which are correct, and which are incorrect?


(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)

Ray diagrams

Figure j shows some guidelines for using ray diagrams effectively. The light rays bend when then pass out through the surface of the water (a phenomenon that we'll discuss in more detail later). The rays appear to have come from a point above the goldfish's actual location, an effect that is familiar to people who have tried spear-fishing.


j / 1. Correct. 2. Incorrect: implies that diffuse reflection only gives one ray from each reflecting point. 3. Correct, but unnecessarily complicated

Discussion Question

If you observe thunder and lightning, you can tell how far away the storm is. Do you need to know the speed of sound, of light, or of both?

When phenomena like X-rays and cosmic rays were first discovered, suggest a way one could have tested whether they were forms of light.

Why did Roemer only need to know the radius of the earth's orbit, not Jupiter's, in order to find the speed of light?

The curtains in a room are drawn, but a small gap lets light through, illuminating a spot on the floor. It may or may not also be possible to see the beam of sunshine crossing the room, depending on the conditions. What's going on?

Laser beams are made of light. In science fiction movies, laser beams are often shown as bright lines shooting out of a laser gun on a spaceship. Why is this scientifically incorrect?

Suppose an intelligent tool-using fish is spear-hunting for humans. Draw a ray diagram to show how the fish has to correct its aim. Note that although the rays are now passing from the air to the water, the same rules apply: the rays are closer to being perpendicular to the surface when they are in the water, and rays that hit the air-water interface at a shallow angle are bent the most.

7.2 Applications


l / The same lens is shown with its diaphragm set to three different apertures.


p / Discussion question B.


q / Discussion question C.

The inverse-square law

Energy is conserved, so a ray of light should theoretically be able to cross an infinite distance without losing any of its intensity, provided that it's traveling through empty space, so that there's no matter that it can give its energy away to. In that case, why does a distant candle appear dim? Likewise, our sun is just a star like any other star, but it appears much brighter because it's so much closer to us. Why are the other stars so dim if not because their light gets “tired,” or “wears out?” It's not that the light rays are stopping, it's that they're getting spread out more thinly. The light comes out of the source in all directions, and if you're very far away, only a tiny percentage of the light will go into your eye. (If all the light from a star went into your eye, you'd be in trouble.)


k / The light is four times dimmer at twice the distance.

Figure k shows what happens if you double your distance from the source. The light from the flame spreads out in all directions. We pick four representative rays from among those that happen to pass through the nearer square. Of these four, only one passes through the square of equal area at twice the distance. If the two equal-area squares were people's eyes, then only one fourth of the light would go into the more distant person's eye.

Another way of thinking about it is that the light that passed through the first square spreads out and makes a bigger square; at double the distance, the square is twice as wide and twice as tall, so its area is \(2\times2=4\) times greater. The same light has been spread out over four times the area.

In general, the rule works like this:

\[\begin{align*} \text{distance}\times2 &\Rightarrow \text{brightness}\times\frac{1}{4}\\ \text{distance}\times3 &\Rightarrow \text{brightness}\times\frac{1}{9}\\ \text{distance}\times4 &\Rightarrow \text{brightness}\times\frac{1}{16} \end{align*}\]

To get the 4, we multiplied 2 by itself, 9 came from multiplying 3 by itself, and so on. Multiplying a number by itself is called squaring it, and dividing one by a number is called inverting it, so a relationship like this is known as an inverse square law. Inverse square laws are very common in physics: they occur whenever something is spreading out in all directions from a point. Physicists already knew about this kind of inverse square law, for light, before Newton found out that the force of gravity varied as an inverse square, so his law of gravity made sense to them intuitively, and they were ready to accept it. However, Newton's law of gravity doesn't describe gravity as a substance that physically travels outward through space, so it's only a rough analogy. (One modern hypothesis about gravity is that the messages of gravitational attraction between two objects are actually carried by little particles, called gravitons, but nobody has ever detected a graviton directly.)


Alice is one meter from the candle, while Bob is at a distance of five meters. How many times dimmer is the light at Bob's location?

(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)
Example 1: An example with sound

\(\triangleright\) Four castaways are adrift in an open boat, and are yelling to try to attract the attention of passing ships. If all four of them yell at once, how much is their range increased compared to the range they would have if they took turns yelling one at a time?
\(\triangleright\) This is an example involving sound. Although sound isn't the same as light, it does spread out in all directions from a source, so it obeys the inverse-square law. In the previous examples, we knew the distance and wanted to find the intensity (brightness). Here, we know about the intensity (loudness), and we want to find out about the distance. Rather than taking a number and multiplying it by itself to find the answer, we need to reverse the process, and find the number that, when multiplied by itself, gives four. In other words, we're computing the square root of four, which is two. They will double their range, not quadruple it.

Example 2: Astronomical distance scales
The nearest star, Alpha Centauri,1 is about 10,000,000,000,000,000 times dimmer than our sun when viewed from our planet. If we assume that Alpha Centauri's true brightness is roughly the same as that of our own sun, then we can find the distance to Alpha Centauri by taking the square root of this number. Alpha Centauri's distance from us is equal to about 100,000,000 times our distance from the sun.
Example 3: Pupils and camera diaphragms

In bright sunlight, your pupils contract to admit less light. At night they dilate, becoming bigger “light buckets.” Your perception of brightness depends not only on the true brightness of the source and your distance from it, but also on how much area your pupils present to the light. Cameras have a similar mechanism, which is easy to see if you detach the lens and its housing from the body of the camera, as shown in the figure. Here, the diameter of the largest aperture is about ten times greater than that of the smallest aperture. Making a circle ten times greater in radius increases its area by a factor of 100, so the light-gathering power of the camera becomes 100 times greater. (Many people expect that the area would only be ten times greater, but if you start drawing copies of the small circle inside the large circle, you'll see that ten are not nearly enough to fill in the entire area of the larger circle. Both the width and the height of the bigger circle are ten times greater, so its area is 100 times greater.)


Example 2 on page 142 showed how we can use brightness to determine distance, but your eye-brain system has a different method. Right now, you can tell how far away this page is from your eyes. This sense of depth perception comes from the fact that your two eyes show you the same scene from two different perspectives. If you wink one eye and then the other, the page will appear to shift back and forth a little.


m / At double the distance, the parallax angle is approximately halved.

If you were looking at a fly on the bridge of your nose, there would be an angle of nearly \(180°\) between the ray that went into your left eye and the one that went into your right. Your brain would know that this large angle implied a very small distance. This is called the parallax angle. Objects at greater distances have smaller parallax angles, and when the angles are small, it's a good approximation to say that the angle is inversely proportional to the distance. In figure m, the parallax angle is almost exactly cut in half when the person moves twice as far away.

Parallax can be observed in other ways than with a pair of eyeballs. As a child, you noticed that when you walked around on a moonlit evening, the moon seemed to follow you. The moon wasn't really following you, and this isn't even a special property of the moon. It's just that as you walk, you expect to observe a parallax angle between the same scene viewed from different positions of your whole head. Very distant objects, including those on the Earth's surface, have parallax angles too small to notice by walking back and forth. In general, rays coming from a very distant object are nearly parallel.

If your baseline is long enough, however, the small parallaxes of even very distant objects may be detectable. In the nineteenth century, nobody knew how tall the Himalayas were, or exactly where their peaks were on a map, and the Andes were generally believed to be the tallest mountains in the world. The Himalayas had never been climbed, and could only be viewed from a distance. From down on the plains of India, there was no way to tell whether they were very tall mountains very far away, or relatively low ones that were much closer. British surveyor George Everest finally established their true distance, and astounding height, by observing the same peaks through a telescope from different locations far apart.

An even more spectacular feat of measurement was carried out by Hipparchus over twenty-one centuries ago. By measuring the parallax of the moon as observed from Alexandria and the Hellespont, he determined its distance to be about 90 times the radius of the earth.2

The earth circles the sun, n, and we can therefore determine the distances to a few hundred of the nearest stars by making observations six months apart, so that the baseline for the parallax measurement is the diameter of the earth's orbit. For these stars, the distances derived from parallax can be checked against the ones found by the method of example 2 on page 142. They do check out, which verifies the assumption that the stars are objects analogous to our sun.


n / The nearer star has a larger parallax angle. By measuring the parallax angles, we can determine the distances to both stars. (The scale on this drawing is not realistic. If the earth's orbit was really this size, the nearest stars would be several kilometers away.)

Reversibility of light rays

The fact that specular reflection displays equal angles of incidence and reflection means that there is a symmetry: if the ray had come in from the right instead of the left in the figure above, the angles would have looked exactly the same. This is not just a pointless detail about specular reflection. It's a manifestation of a very deep and important fact about nature, which is that the laws of physics do not distinguish between past and future. Cannonballs and planets have trajectories that are equally natural in reverse, and so do light rays. This type of symmetry is called time-reversal symmetry.

Typically, time-reversal symmetry is a characteristic of any process that does not involve heat. For instance, the planets do not experience any friction as they travel through empty space, so there is no frictional heating. We should thus expect the time-reversed versions of their orbits to obey the laws of physics, which they do. In contrast, a book sliding across a table does generate heat from friction as it slows down, and it is therefore not surprising that this type of motion does not appear to obey time-reversal symmetry. A book lying still on a flat table is never observed to spontaneously start sliding, sucking up heat energy and transforming it into kinetic energy.

Similarly, the only situation we've observed so far where light does not obey time-reversal symmetry is absorption, which involves heat. Your skin absorbs visible light from the sun and heats up, but we never observe people's skin to glow, converting heat energy into visible light. People's skin does glow in infrared light, but that doesn't mean the situation is symmetric. Even if you absorb infrared, you don't emit visible light, because your skin isn't hot enough to glow in the visible spectrum.

Example 4: Ray tracing on a computer

A number of techniques can be used for creating artificial visual scenes in computer graphics. Figure o shows such a scene, which was created by the brute-force technique of simply constructing a very detailed ray diagram on a computer. This technique requires a great deal of computation, and is therefore too slow to be used for video games and computer-animated movies. One trick for speeding up the computation is to exploit the reversibility of light rays. If one was to trace every ray emitted by every illuminated surface, only a tiny fraction of those would actually end up passing into the virtual “camera,” and therefore almost all of the computational effort would be wasted. One can instead start a ray at the camera, trace it backward in time, and see where it would have come from. With this technique, there is no wasted effort.


o / This photorealistic image of a nonexistent countertop was produced completely on a computer, by computing a complicated ray diagram.

Discussion Questions

If a light ray has a velocity vector with components \(c_x\) and \(c_y\), what will happen when it is reflected from a surface that lies along the \(y\) axis? Make sure your answer does not imply a change in the ray's speed.

Generalizing your reasoning from discussion question A, what will happen to the velocity components of a light ray that hits a corner, as shown in the figure, and undergoes two reflections?

Three pieces of sheet metal arranged perpendicularly as shown in the figure form what is known as a radar corner. Let's assume that the radar corner is large compared to the wavelength of the radar waves, so that the ray model makes sense. If the radar corner is bathed in radar rays, at least some of them will undergo three reflections. Making a further generalization of your reasoning from the two preceding discussion questions, what will happen to the three velocity components of such a ray? What would the radar corner be useful for?

7.3 The Principle of Least Time for Reflection (optional)


r / The solid lines are physically possible paths for light rays traveling from A to B and from A to C. They obey the principle of least time. The dashed lines do not obey the principle of least time, and are not physically possible.


s / Paths AQB and APB are two conceivable paths that a ray could follow to get from A to B with one reflection, but only AQB is physically possible. We wish to prove that the path AQB, with equal angles of incidence and reflection, is shorter than any other path, such as APB. The trick is to construct a third point, C, lying as far below the surface as B lies above it. Then path AQC is a straight line whose length is the same as AQB's, and path APC has the same length as path APB. Since AQC is straight, it must be shorter than any other path such as APC that connects A and C, and therefore AQB must be shorter than any path such as APB.


t / Light is emitted at the center of an elliptical mirror. There are four physically possible paths by which a ray can be reflected and return to the center.

There is another way of stating the rules of reflection that is very simple and beautiful, and turns out to have deep consequences and apply much more broadly, not just to reflection. It is called the principle of least time, or Fermat's principle.

Let's start with the motion of light that is not interacting with matter at all. In a vacuum, a light ray moves in a straight line. This can be rephrased as follows: of all the conceivable paths light could follow from P to Q, the only one that is physically possible is the path that takes the least time.

What about reflection? If light is going to go from one point to another, being reflected on the way, the quickest path is indeed the one with equal angles of incidence and reflection. If the starting and ending points are equally far from the reflecting surface, r, it's not hard to convince yourself that this is true, just based on symmetry. There is also a tricky and simple proof, shown in figure s, for the more general case where the points are at different distances from the surface.

Not only does the principle of least time work for light in a vacuum and light undergoing reflection, we will also see in a later chapter that it works for the bending of light when it passes from one medium into another.

Although it is beautiful that the entire ray model of light can be reduced to one simple rule, the principle of least time, it may seem a little spooky to speak as if the ray of light is intelligent, and has carefully planned ahead to find the shortest route to its destination. How does it know in advance where it's going? What if we moved the mirror while the light was en route, so conditions along its planned path were not what it “expected?” The answer is that the principle of least time is really an approximate shortcut for finding certain results of the wave model of light.

There are a couple of subtle points about the principle of least time. First, the path does not have to be the quickest of all possible paths; it only needs to be quicker than any path that differs infinitesimally from it. In figure s, for instance, light could get from A to B either by the reflected path AQB or simply by going straight from A to B. Although AQB is not the shortest possible path, it cannot be shortened by changing it infinitesimally, e.g., by moving Q a little to the right or left. On the other hand, path APB is physically impossible, because it is possible to improve on it by moving point P infinitesimally to the right.

It's not quite right to call this the principle of least time. In figure t, for example, the four physically possible paths by which a ray can return to the center consist of two shortest-time paths and two longest-time paths. Strictly speaking, we should refer to the principle of least or greatest time, but most physicists omit the niceties, and assume that other physicists understand that both maxima and minima are possible.

7.4 Images by Reflection


u / An image formed by a mirror.


v / An image formed by a curved mirror.


w / The image is magnified by the same factor in depth and in its other dimensions.


y / A Newtonian telescope being used with a camera.


z / A Newtonian telescope being used for visual rather than photographic observing. In real life, an eyepiece lens is normally used for additional magnification, but this simpler setup will also work.

Infants are always fascinated by the antics of the Baby in the Mirror. Now if you want to know something about mirror images that most people don't understand, try this. First bring this page closer wand closer to your eyes, until you can no longer focus on it without straining. Then go in the bathroom and see how close you can get your face to the surface of the mirror before you can no longer easily focus on the image of your own eyes. You will find that the shortest comfortable eye-mirror distance is much less than the shortest comfortable eye-paper distance. This demonstrates that the image of your face in the mirror acts as if it had depth and existed in the space behind the mirror. If the image was like a flat picture in a book, then you wouldn't be able to focus on it from such a short distance.

In this chapter we will study the images formed by flat and curved mirrors on a qualitative, conceptual basis. Although this type of image is not as commonly encountered in everyday life as images formed by lenses, images formed by reflection are simpler to understand.

A virtual image

We can understand a mirror image using a ray diagram. Figure u shows several light rays, 1, that originated by diffuse reflection at the person's nose. They bounce off the mirror, producing new rays, 2. To anyone whose eye is in the right position to get one of these rays, they appear to have come from a behind the mirror, 3, where they would have originated from a single point. This point is where the tip of the image-person's nose appears to be. A similar analysis applies to every other point on the person's face, so it looks as though there was an entire face behind the mirror. The customary way of describing the situation requires some explanation:

This is referred to as a virtual image, because the rays do not actually cross at the point behind the mirror. They only appear to have originated there.


Imagine that the person in figure u moves his face down quite a bit --- a couple of feet in real life, or a few inches on this scale drawing. Draw a new ray diagram. Will there still be an image? If so, where is it visible from?

(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)

The geometry of specular reflection tells us that rays 1 and 2 are at equal angles to the normal (the imaginary perpendicular line piercing the mirror at the point of reflection). This means that ray 2's imaginary continuation, 3, forms the same angle with the mirror as ray 1. Since each ray of type 3 forms the same angles with the mirror as its partner of type 1, we see that the distance of the image from the mirror is the same as the actual face from the mirror, and lies directly across from it. The image therefore appears to be the same size as the actual face.

Curved mirrors

An image in a flat mirror is a pretechnological example: even animals can look at their reflections in a calm pond. We now pass to our first nontrivial example of the manipulation of an image by technology: an image in a curved mirror. Before we dive in, let's consider why this is an important example. If it was just a question of memorizing a bunch of facts about curved mirrors, then you would rightly rebel against an effort to spoil the beauty of your liberally educated brain by force-feeding you technological trivia. The reason this is an important example is not that curved mirrors are so important in and of themselves, but that the results we derive for curved bowl-shaped mirrors turn out to be true for a large class of other optical devices, including mirrors that bulge outward rather than inward, and lenses as well. A microscope or a telescope is simply a combination of lenses or mirrors or both. What you're really learning about here is the basic building block of all optical devices from movie projectors to octopus eyes.

Because the mirror in figure v is curved, it bends the rays back closer together than a flat mirror would: we describe it as converging. Note that the term refers to what it does to the light rays, not to the physical shape of the mirror's surface . (The surface itself would be described as concave. The term is not all that hard to remember, because the hollowed-out interior of the mirror is like a cave.) It is surprising but true that all the rays like 3 really do converge on a point, forming a good image. We will not prove this fact, but it is true for any mirror whose curvature is gentle enough and that is symmetric with respect to rotation about the perpendicular line passing through its center (not asymmetric like a potato chip). The old-fashioned method of making mirrors and lenses is by grinding them in grit by hand, and this automatically tends to produce an almost perfect spherical surface.

Bending a ray like 2 inward implies bending its imaginary continuation 3 outward, in the same way that raising one end of a seesaw causes the other end to go down. The image therefore forms deeper behind the mirror. This doesn't just show that there is extra distance between the image-nose and the mirror; it also implies that the image itself is bigger from front to back. It has been magnified in the front-to-back direction.

It is easy to prove that the same magnification also applies to the image's other dimensions. Consider a point like E in figure w. The trick is that out of all the rays diffusely reflected by E, we pick the one that happens to head for the mirror's center, C. The equal-angle property of specular reflection plus a little straightforward geometry easily leads us to the conclusion that triangles ABC and CDE are the same shape, with ABC being simply a scaled-up version of CDE. The magnification of depth equals the ratio BC/CD, and the up-down magnification is AB/DE. A repetition of the same proof shows that the magnification in the third dimension (out of the page) is also the same. This means that the image-head is simply a larger version of the real one, without any distortion. The scaling factor is called the magnification, \(M\). The image in the figure is magnified by a factor \(M=1.9\).

Note that we did not explicitly specify whether the mirror was a sphere, a paraboloid, or some other shape. However, we assumed that a focused image would be formed, which would not necessarily be true, for instance, for a mirror that was asymmetric or very deeply curved.

A real image

If we start by placing an object very close to the mirror, x/1, and then move it farther and farther away, the image at first behaves as we would expect from our everyday experience with flat mirrors, receding deeper and deeper behind the mirror. At a certain point, however, a dramatic change occurs. When the object is more than a certain distance from the mirror, x/2, the image appears upside-down and in front of the mirror.

Here's what's happened. The mirror bends light rays inward, but when the object is very close to it, as in x/1, the rays coming from a given point on the object are too strongly diverging (spreading) for the mirror to bring them back together. On reflection, the rays are still diverging, just not as strongly diverging. But when the object is sufficiently far away, x/2, the mirror is only intercepting the rays that came out in a narrow cone, and it is able to bend these enough so that they will reconverge.

Note that the rays shown in the figure, which both originated at the same point on the object, reunite when they cross. The point where they cross is the image of the point on the original object. This type of image is called a real image, in contradistinction to the virtual images we've studied before. The use of the word “real” is perhaps unfortunate. It sounds as though we are saying the image was an actual material object, which of course it is not.


x / 1. A virtual image. 2. A real image. As you'll verify in homework problem 9, the image is upside-down

The distinction between a real image and a virtual image is an important one, because a real image can be projected onto a screen or photographic film. If a piece of paper is inserted in figure x/2 at the location of the image, the image will be visible on the paper (provided the object is bright and the room is dark). Your eye uses a lens to make a real image on the retina.


Sketch another copy of the face in figure x/1, even farther from the mirror, and draw a ray diagram. What has happened to the location of the image?

(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)

Images of images

If you are wearing glasses right now, then the light rays from the page are being manipulated first by your glasses and then by the lens of your eye. You might think that it would be extremely difficult to analyze this, but in fact it is quite easy. In any series of optical elements (mirrors or lenses or both), each element works on the rays furnished by the previous element in exactly the same manner as if the image formed by the previous element was an actual object.

Figure y shows an example involving only mirrors. The Newtonian telescope, invented by Isaac Newton, consists of a large curved mirror, plus a second, flat mirror that brings the light out of the tube. (In very large telescopes, there may be enough room to put a camera or even a person inside the tube, in which case the second mirror is not needed.) The tube of the telescope is not vital; it is mainly a structural element, although it can also be helpful for blocking out stray light. The lens has been removed from the front of the camera body, and is not needed for this setup. Note that the two sample rays have been drawn parallel, because an astronomical telescope is used for viewing objects that are extremely far away. These two “parallel” lines actually meet at a certain point, say a crater on the moon, so they can't actually be perfectly parallel, but they are parallel for all practical purposes since we would have to follow them upward for a quarter of a million miles to get to the point where they intersect.

The large curved mirror by itself would form an image \(\text{I}\), but the small flat mirror creates an image of the image, \(\text{I}'\). The relationship between \(\text{I}\) and \(\text{I}'\) is exactly the same as it would be if \(\text{I}\) was an actual object rather than an image: \(\text{I}\) and \(\text{I}'\) are at equal distances from the plane of the mirror, and the line between them is perpendicular to the plane of the mirror.

One surprising wrinkle is that whereas a flat mirror used by itself forms a virtual image of an object that is real, here the mirror is forming a real image of virtual image \(\text{I}\). This shows how pointless it would be to try to memorize lists of facts about what kinds of images are formed by various optical elements under various circumstances. You are better off simply drawing a ray diagram.

Although the main point here was to give an example of an image of an image, figure z shows an interesting case where we need to make the distinction between magnification and angular magnification. \(\text{I}\)f you are looking at the moon through this telescope, then the images \(\text{I}\) and \(\text{I}'\) are much smaller than the actual moon. Otherwise, for example, image \(\text{I}\) would not fit inside the telescope! However, these images are very close to your eye compared to the actual moon. The small size of the image has been more than compensated for by the shorter distance. The important thing here is the amount of angle within your field of view that the image covers, and it is this angle that has been increased. The factor by which it is increased is called the angular magnification, \(M_a\).


aa / The angular size of the flower depends on its distance from the eye.

Discussion Questions

The figure shows an object that is off to one side of a mirror. Draw a ray diagram. Is an image formed? If so, where is it, and from which directions would it be visible?


Locate the images of you that will be formed if you stand between two parallel mirrors.


Locate the images formed by two perpendicular mirrors, as in the figure. What happens if the mirrors are not perfectly perpendicular?


Locate the images formed by the periscope.


Homework Problems


ad / Problem 3.

[Problems] \addcontentsline{toc}{section}{\protect{Problems}}

1. The natives of planet Wumpus play pool using light rays on an eleven-sided table with mirrors for bumpers, shown in the figure on the next page. Trace this shot accurately with a ruler to reveal the hidden message. To get good enough accuracy, you'll need to photocopy the page (or download the book and print the page) and construct each reflection using a protractor.


ab / Problem 1.


ac / Problem 2.

2. The figure on the next page shows a curved (parabolic) mirror, with three parallel light rays coming toward it. One ray is approaching along the mirror's center line. (a) Trace the drawing accurately, and continue the light rays until they are about to undergo their second reflection. To get good enough accuracy, you'll need to photocopy the page (or download the book and print the page) and draw in the normal at each place where a ray is reflected. What do you notice? (b) Make up an example of a practical use for this device. (c) How could you use this mirror with a small lightbulb to produce a parallel beam of light rays going off to the right?

3. The figure shows four points where rays cross. Of these, which are image points? Explain.

4. In this chapter we've only done examples of mirrors with hollowed-out shapes (called concave mirrors). Now draw a ray diagram for a curved mirror that has a bulging outward shape (called a convex mirror). (a) How does the image's distance from the mirror compare with the actual object's distance from the mirror? From this comparison, determine whether the magnification is greater than or less than one. (b) Is the image real or virtual? Could this mirror ever make the other type of image?

5. Draw a ray diagram showing why a small light source (a candle, say) produces sharper shadows than a large one (e.g., a long fluorescent bulb).

6. (answer check available at A man is walking at 1.0 m/s directly towards a flat mirror. At what speed is his separation from his image decreasing?

7. If a mirror on a wall is only big enough for you to see yourself from your head down to your waist, can you see your entire body by backing up? Test this experimentally and come up with an explanation for your observations, including a ray diagram.

Note that when you do the experiment, it's easy to confuse yourself if the mirror is even a tiny bit off of vertical. One way to check yourself is to artificially lower the top of the mirror by putting a piece of tape or a post-it note where it blocks your view of the top of your head. You can then check whether you are able to see more of yourself both above and below by backing up.

8. As discussed in question 4, there are two types of curved mirrors, concave and convex. Make a list of all the possible combinations of types of images (virtual or real) with types of mirrors (concave and convex). (Not all of the four combinations are physically possible.) Now for each one, use ray diagrams to determine whether increasing the distance of the object from the mirror leads to an increase or a decrease in the distance of the image from the mirror.

Draw BIG ray diagrams! Each diagram should use up about half a page of paper.

Some tips: To draw a ray diagram, you need two rays. For one of these, pick the ray that comes straight along the mirror's axis, since its reflection is easy to draw. After you draw the two rays and locate the image for the original object position, pick a new object position that results in the same type of image, and start a new ray diagram, in a different color of pen, right on top of the first one. For the two new rays, pick the ones that just happen to hit the mirror at the same two places; this makes it much easier to get the result right without depending on extreme accuracy in your ability to draw the reflected rays.

9. In figure x/2 in on page 150, only the image of my forehead was located by drawing rays. Either photocopy the figure or download the book and print out the relevant page. On this copy of the figure, make a new set of rays coming from my chin, and locate its image. To make it easier to judge the angles accurately, draw rays from the chin that happen to hit the mirror at the same points where the two rays from the forehead were shown hitting it. By comparing the locations of the chin's image and the forehead's image, verify that the image is actually upside-down, as shown in the original figure.

10. If the user of an astronomical telescope moves her head closer to or farther away from the image she is looking at, does the magnification change? Does the angular magnification change? Explain. (For simplicity, assume that no eyepiece is being used.)

11. Here's a game my kids like to play. I sit next to a sunny window, and the sun reflects from the glass on my watch, making a disk of light on the wall or floor, which they pretend to chase as I move it around. Is the spot a disk because that's the shape of the sun, or because it's the shape of my watch? In other words, would a square watch make a square spot, or do we just have a circular image of the circular sun, which will be circular no matter what?

12. A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver is a device that lets you figure out where you are by measuring the time for radio signals to travel between you and the satellite, which is related to the distance between you and the satellite. By finding the ranges to several different satellites in this way, it can pin down your location in three dimensions to within a few meters. How accurate does the measurement of the time delay have to be to determine your position to this accuracy?

13. Estimate the frequency of an electromagnetic wave whose wavelength is similar in size to an atom (about a nm). Referring back to figure z on p. 127, in what part of the electromagnetic spectrum would such a wave lie (infrared, gamma-rays, ...)?

14. The Stealth bomber is designed with flat, smooth surfaces. Why would this make it difficult to detect via radar?

(c) 1998-2013 Benjamin Crowell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Photo credits are given at the end of the Adobe Acrobat version.

[1] Sticklers will note that the nearest star is really our own sun, and the second nearest is the burned-out cinder known as Proxima Centauri, which is Alpha Centauri's close companion.
[2] The reason this was a hard measurement was that accurate clocks hadn't been invented, so there was no easy way to synchronize the two observations, and the desired effect would be masked by the apparent motion of the moon across the sky as it rose and set. Hipparchus's trick was to do the measurement during a solar eclipse, so that people at both locations would know they were in sync.