Reflections on Total Internal Reflection

Lorne A. Whitehead and Michele A. Mossman

These authors probe some of the most fundamental approximations in optics to explore why total internal reflection is not as straightforward as it might seem.


figureWildebeest with mirage, Namibia.

The phenomenon known as total internal reflection (TIR) is ubiquitous. It occurs when electromagnetic radiation that is propagating in one medium encounters a second medium with a lower refractive index at an inclination beyond a critical angle. Energy does not enter the second medium but instead entirely reflects; TIR can be observed anytime that the reflected energy lies in the visible spectrum. (This discussion primarily focuses on visible light, but the principles governing TIR are equally applicable to all wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and most other wavelike phenomena in two or more dimensions.)

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