<< Chapter < Page Chapter >> Page >

Total internal reflection, coupled with a large index of refraction, explains why diamonds sparkle more than other materials. The critical angle for a diamond-to-air surface is only 24.4 ° , so when light enters a diamond, it has trouble getting back out ( [link] ). Although light freely enters the diamond, it can exit only if it makes an angle less than 24.4 ° . Facets on diamonds are specifically intended to make this unlikely. Good diamonds are very clear, so that the light makes many internal reflections and is concentrated before exiting—hence the bright sparkle. (Zircon is a natural gemstone that has an exceptionally large index of refraction, but it is not as large as diamond, so it is not as highly prized. Cubic zirconia is manufactured and has an even higher index of refraction ( 2.17 ) , but it is still less than that of diamond.) The colors you see emerging from a clear diamond are not due to the diamond’s color, which is usually nearly colorless. The colors result from dispersion, which we discuss in Dispersion . Colored diamonds get their color from structural defects of the crystal lattice and the inclusion of minute quantities of graphite and other materials. The Argyle Mine in Western Australia produces around 90% of the world’s pink, red, champagne, and cognac diamonds, whereas around 50% of the world’s clear diamonds come from central and southern Africa.

A light ray falls onto one of the faces of a diamond, gets refracted, falls on another face and gets totally internally reflected since the angle of incidence at the diamond air interface is larger than the critical angle. This reflected ray further undergoes multiple reflections when it falls on other faces.
Light cannot easily escape a diamond, because its critical angle with air is so small. Most reflections are total, and the facets are placed so that light can exit only in particular ways—thus concentrating the light and making the diamond sparkle brightly.

Explore refraction and reflection of light between two media with different indices of refraction. Try to make the refracted ray disappear with total internal reflection. Use the protractor tool to measure the critical angle and compare with the prediction from [link] .


  • The incident angle that produces an angle of refraction of 90 ° is called the critical angle.
  • Total internal reflection is a phenomenon that occurs at the boundary between two media, such that if the incident angle in the first medium is greater than the critical angle, then all the light is reflected back into that medium.
  • Fiber optics involves the transmission of light down fibers of plastic or glass, applying the principle of total internal reflection.
  • Cladding prevents light from being transmitted between fibers in a bundle.
  • Diamonds sparkle due to total internal reflection coupled with a large index of refraction.

Conceptual questions

A ring with a colorless gemstone is dropped into water. The gemstone becomes invisible when submerged. Can it be a diamond? Explain.

The gemstone becomes invisible when its index of refraction is the same, or at least similar to, the water surrounding it. Because diamond has a particularly high index of refraction, it can still sparkle as a result of total internal reflection, not invisible.

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

The most common type of mirage is an illusion that light from faraway objects is reflected by a pool of water that is not really there. Mirages are generally observed in deserts, when there is a hot layer of air near the ground. Given that the refractive index of air is lower for air at higher temperatures, explain how mirages can be formed.

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

How can you use total internal reflection to estimate the index of refraction of a medium?

One can measure the critical angle by looking for the onset of total internal reflection as the angle of incidence is varied. [link] can then be applied to compute the index of refraction.

Got questions? Get instant answers now!


Verify that the critical angle for light going from water to air is 48.6 ° , as discussed at the end of [link] , regarding the critical angle for light traveling in a polystyrene (a type of plastic) pipe surrounded by air.

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

(a) At the end of [link] , it was stated that the critical angle for light going from diamond to air is 24.4 ° . Verify this. (b) What is the critical angle for light going from zircon to air?

a. 24.42 ° ; b. 31.33 °

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

An optical fiber uses flint glass clad with crown glass. What is the critical angle?

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

At what minimum angle will you get total internal reflection of light traveling in water and reflected from ice?

79.11 °

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

Suppose you are using total internal reflection to make an efficient corner reflector. If there is air outside and the incident angle is 45.0 ° , what must be the minimum index of refraction of the material from which the reflector is made?

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

You can determine the index of refraction of a substance by determining its critical angle. (a) What is the index of refraction of a substance that has a critical angle of 68.4 ° when submerged in water? What is the substance, based on [link] ? (b) What would the critical angle be for this substance in air?

a. 1.43, fluorite; b. 44.2 °

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

A ray of light, emitted beneath the surface of an unknown liquid with air above it, undergoes total internal reflection as shown below. What is the index of refraction for the liquid and its likely identification?

A light ray travels from an object placed in a medium n 1 at 15.0 centimeters below the horizontal interface with medium n 2. This ray gets totally internally reflected with theta c as critical angle. The horizontal distance between the object and the point of incidence is 13.4 centimeters.
Got questions? Get instant answers now!

Light rays fall normally on the vertical surface of the glass prism ( n = 1.50 ) shown below. (a) What is the largest value for ϕ such that the ray is totally reflected at the slanted face? (b) Repeat the calculation of part (a) if the prism is immersed in water.

A right angle triangular prism has a horizontal base and a vertical side. The hypotenuse of the triangle makes an angle of phi with the horizontal base. A horizontal light rays is incident normally on the vertical surface of the prism.

a. 48.2 ° ; b. 27.3 °

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

Questions & Answers

as a free falling object increases speed what is happening to the acceleration
Success Reply
photo electrons doesn't emmit when electrons are free to move on surface of metal why?
Rafi Reply
What would be the minimum work function of a metal have to be for visible light(400-700)nm to ejected photoelectrons?
Mohammed Reply
give any fix value to wave length
40 cm into change mm
Arhaan Reply
40cm=40.0×10^-2m =400.0×10^-3m =400mm. that cap(^) I have used above is to the power.
i.e. 10to the power -2 in the first line and 10 to the power -3 in the the second line.
there is mistake in my first msg correction is 40cm=40.0×10^-2m =400.0×10^-3m =400mm. sorry for the mistake friends.
40cm=40.0×10^-2m =400.0×10^-3m =400mm.
this msg is out of mistake. sorry friends​.
what is physics?
sisay Reply
why we have physics
Anil Reply
because is the study of mater and natural world
because physics is nature. it explains the laws of nature. some laws already discovered. some laws yet to be discovered.
is this a physics forum
Physics Reply
explain l-s coupling
Depk Reply
how can we say dirac equation is also called a relativistic equation in one word
preeti Reply
what is the electronic configration of Al
usman Reply
what's the signeficance of dirac equetion.?
Sibghat Reply
what is the effect of heat on refractive index
Nepal Reply
As refractive index depend on other factors also but if we supply heat on any system or media its refractive index decrease. i.e. it is inversely proportional to the heat.
you are correct
law of multiple
if we heated the ice then the refractive index be change from natural water
can someone explain normalization condition
Priyojit Reply
please tell
1 millimeter is How many metres
Darling Reply
1millimeter =0.001metre
The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons when light shines on a material. 
Chris Reply
Practice Key Terms 3

Get the best University physics vol... course in your pocket!

Source:  OpenStax, University physics volume 3. OpenStax CNX. Nov 04, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col12067/1.4
Google Play and the Google Play logo are trademarks of Google Inc.

Notification Switch

Would you like to follow the 'University physics volume 3' conversation and receive update notifications?