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Mirage, refraction or reflection

  1. Oct 16, 2003 #1
    So what is it?

    This is not a homework question. But I anticipate a good discussion.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 16, 2003 #2


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    Mostly refraction, but there might be some reflection in it. It's mostly a refraction of light from the sky, which looks like it's coming from the ground ahead, and is taken for a lake or something of the sort.

    We had a thread on the optical technicalities a while back. Does anyone know where it is?
  4. Oct 16, 2003 #3
    Mirages - A Reflection effect!!! - a consequence of Refraction

    U see, the air does not get heated uniformly. Instead, it gets heated in layers. Thus the optical properties of the diff layers of air will be diff. The light from a distant object rises up, and moves from an optically denser layer to an optically lighter layer and if the angle of incidence is such that the critical angle is achieved, TOTAL INTERNAL REFLECTION occurs. This causes an image of the object to be created on the surface at diff location which we observe as the mirage...

    Hope u understood...
  5. Oct 16, 2003 #4
    Just out of curiosity, how does "light rise up"??
  6. Oct 16, 2003 #5

    So i't is reflexion, Right. But how about this?


    So is he right or is he wrong?
  7. Oct 16, 2003 #6
  8. Oct 16, 2003 #7


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    Why the or? A mirage is a reflection produced by refaction. The point is that a reflection is not a mechanism it is a result. When you see a refletion in a mirror there is a different mechanism (free electron mobility) which produces that reflection.

    Refraction is the apparent bending of light rays due to light passing an interface to a material with a different index of refaction.

    As far as I know reflection is not a carefully defined term.
  9. Oct 16, 2003 #8


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    I wanted to say that.

    The physics of a mirage is understood. Light bends due to a gradient in the refractive index. The rest is semantics. I like sridhar_n's sig. It's a distinction some of my kids' teachers don't appreciate.
  10. Oct 16, 2003 #9


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    My vote is that the bending of light is caused by semantics.
  11. Oct 17, 2003 #10
    Semantics? I don't think so. I think that sridhar_n is about right. As far as the input and output of a Mirage producing system is concerned I think it is 100% reflection and 0,0% refraction. Not even a little refraction as net result.
  12. Oct 17, 2003 #11


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    Once again, refraction is the MECHANISM which produces a REFLECTION.
  13. Oct 17, 2003 #12
    There we are, this is the essential flaw in my humble opinion.
    Edit made a thinking error here. There is refraction going on but most certainly there are limits to refractions.

    Why is it that none of these pages explaining mirages do not substantiate it with Snellius law? Because it doesn't work.

    I knew we would have a good discussion :wink:
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2003
  14. Oct 18, 2003 #13


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    Perhaps this failure to explain is because you are not reading a real Optics text. I have scanned a few pages from an old text I have, Optics by Rossi.

    Warning for the bandwidth challenged this is a 2Meg PDF file.


    edit: spell check
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  15. Oct 19, 2003 #14
    Perhaps not that relevant, but we use a nice experiment at my school to show refraction of light.

    A long thin tank has extremely saturated salt solution in the bottom, to a depth of about an inch. Tap water is then slowly put on top of this (with a U shaped tube), to a depth of several inches. and allowed to stand for a few hours.

    A laser beam is then placed at the side of the tank, about midway up, and if you've done it right, the beam takes a beautiful curved path, dipping down to the bottom.

    Simple to do and VERY impressive.
  16. Oct 19, 2003 #15


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    I have done this, only used a sugar solution. If you get the laser beam the correct distance from the bottom of the dish it will be totally reflected from the bottom and mirror its entry path on exit.
  17. Oct 19, 2003 #16
    Well, impressive text book, Integral but did you notice that there is always a division by sin(phi). Sinusses can be zero.

    Let's look at Snellius law. R1*sin(phi-in)=R2*sin(phi-out). In which Ri is the refractive index of the medium and phi-in and phi-out obviously the angle of the light before and after refraction. We want to investigate what happens to the light direction after refraction. Therefore we have to reshuffle that law as

    Phi-out= arcsine(R1/R2*sin(Phi-in))

    (angles in relation to the vertical plane)

    Now, weren't there some complications for an arcsine? The factor under the brackets must be less than or equal to one. Otherwise there is no solution. So let us take a closer look at that expression.
    R1 is the refractive index for the incoming light in the heavier colder air and since R2 is a smaller index for lighter warm air, the R1/R2 term is always more than one. Hence sin(Phi-in) must always be less than one or concequently Phi-in must be less than 90 degrees.

    Also, this means that there is a critical angle for Phi-in beyond which refraction is not possible. The formula also indicated that the maximum angle for the refracted light is 90 degrees. So if a light ray is refracted in another material with a horizontal surface, it will never exceed the horizontal, so obviously there is no such thing as refracting back. Yet we see things at and beyond the horizon apparently refracted.

    Ever been swimming underwater? When you look up you only see a circle of light directly above you. The more distant water surface around you is dark. Why? Because the critical angle has been exceeded and the light coming in too shallow is not refracting but either absorbed or reflected. Beyond that angle only the dark bottom under the water is reflected.

    Now look at this impressive picture of a superior (on top) mirage.
    http://www.thulebageren.dk/gallery/fata%20morgana.htm [Broken]

    It's with an inverted mirage, due to very cold air on the surfaces, think the cold inversion being water instead of cold air, with the higher refractive index. The Light at the horizon cannot be refracted due to the critical angle. Instead, you see the bottom reflected and in this case that's the mountains. No wonder that they are upside down. Reflection has that mirroring habit.

    So this mirage is just the same as happens under water, reflection at the water surface , but now there is a critical layer somewhere where the reflection takes place.

    How about a regular mirage in the desert or on the road on a sunny day? Apart from turning the scenario upside down, it's exactly the same.

    Here several examples of inferior (Desert warm type) and superior (artic cold type) mirages:

    http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/mirage.html [Broken]

    So the ultimate trick is real reflection, just like sridhar_n indicated.

    Now how come that after ages of Snellius law and know mirages, we have always assumed a wrong explanation? Time to rewrite some textbooks.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  18. Oct 19, 2003 #17


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    It is still not clear to me where the incorrect explanation is. Seems to work to me.

    The angle at which total internal reflection occurs is called the Brewster angle, are you attempting to say that this is incorrectly handled? I think it is correctly handled.

    Perhaps you are reading different books then I am. You tone seems to indicate that you have read them all. Is this possible? Or are you making some assumptions?
    Rereading your post, and my text, it occurs to me that while you are impressed with it, you are ignoring it. Please read, and make an effort to understand the development. If you are unable to understand the approach, then please do not continue your criticisms of the general understanding, when it is YOU who is having the trouble.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2003
  19. Oct 20, 2003 #18
    No I admit that I did not study it intensely and I will do it on your recommandation but the only thing that I tried to state that the limit of refraction is 90o as can be seen in the law of Snellius. The refraction of light grazing at the critical angle is exactly at 90o. Beyond the critical angle there is no refraction, just total internal reflection. You can read that in any textbook as well:

    http://www.glenbrook.k12.il.us/gbssci/phys/Class/refrn/u14l3c.html [Broken]
    Now the mirage object is always in the heavier cooler air, the more dense medium, regardless of an inferior or superior mirage. It approaches the warmer air, the less dense medium, either from aloft or below. So the first condition has most certainly been met.
    The mirage is always an image of something close to the horizon where the angle of incidence is closing in on the limit of 90o. So for a mirage this conditions looks plausible.

    Now please look at the first figure in the same link with the example of refraction at the critical angle (left) and total internal reflection (right) at the water surface from below. Now replace "water" with "denser colder air" and you've got yourself a superior mirage. Total internal reflection beyond the critical angle of probably something like 89,9o. Now turn the figure upside down and you're looking at the normal inferior mirage, famous for deserts.
    http://www.glenbrook.k12.il.us/gbssci/phys/Class/refrn/u14l3c.html [Broken]

    For a inferior mirage you could argue that the curvature of the Earth would bring the horizontal refracted light into cooler regions again causing it to refract up again, but that does not work for superior mirages where the curvature of the Earth opposes refraction.

    edit after studying:
    Integral, does your textbook actually say something else? I see equations 2-6 and the final one on chapter 2-2 of the example. Now try and use those in practice to see if you can get refraction beyond 0o or 90o depending upon the definition of phi. Notice that the textbook does not indicate that it has proved the bending back up with refraction.

    Sometimes theory may need revisiting.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  20. Oct 20, 2003 #19
    I do have some problems with this. Would this be the sole reason why it takes a generation before a correct paradigm shift can take place. I think that general understanding should be questioned at all times if not the Earth would still have been flat. Arent those forums to discuss those things. OK most challenges will be plain wrong. Please explain where I am wrong.
  21. Oct 20, 2003 #20


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    You're not totally wrong, but I think that you're not considering the appropriate situation. This business with the critical angle and total internal reflection if for a stark boundary between two distinct media. Mirages and the like are phenomena that occur in continuous media (no boundaries, but gradients). You are correct in that total internal reflection occurs when the angle of incidence is greater than the critical angle (by DEFINITION), but you are not correct to assume that the phenomenon of a mirage is a total internal reflection, as there is no distinct medium to which it is internal.

    Refraction at a boundary can be considered strictly using trigonometry in the ray theory of optics, but you mustn't forget that this is based on Hyugen's principle. When you shift your consideration to a continuous medium (gradients vs. boundaries), the intamacy to the principle is greatly amplified. You should take a step back and consider the light in terms of wavefronts rather than rays. The rays are like the vectors and the wavefronts are like the 1-forms. You can consider them as identical objects in a uniform medium and then only worry about them at a boundary (and thus use the ray theory), but, in a non-uniform medium, it becomes a bit more tricky.
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