Refraction is commonly explained in terms of the wave theory of light and is based on the fact that light travels with greater velocity in some media than it does in others. When, for example, a ray of light traveling through air strikes the surface of a piece of glass at an oblique angle, one side of the wave front enters the glass before the other and is retarded (since light travels more slowly in glass than in air), while the other side continues to move at its original speed until it too reaches the glass. As a result, the ray bends inside the glass, i.e., the refracted ray lies in a direction closer to the normal (the perpendicular to the boundary of the media) than does the incident ray. A light ray entering a different medium is called the incident ray; after bending, the ray is called the refracted ray. The speed at which a given transparent medium transmits light waves is related to its optical density (not to be confused with mass or weight density). In general, a ray is refracted toward the normal when it passes into a denser medium and away from the normal when it passes into a less dense medium.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.