How does a prism work?

How does a prism work? — RH, Louisville, KY

When light enters a material such as glass, the light slows down. That’s because the electric charges in the material delay a light wave by interacting with the wave’s electric and magnetic fields. The higher the frequency of the light wave, the more it interacts with the charges in most materials and the more that light wave slows down. Thus high-frequency violet light slows more than low-frequency red light as the two enter a piece of glass.

Because of this slowing effect, light bends when it encounters a glass surface at an angle. The wave has a width and as it encounters the glass surface, one side of the wave reaches the glass before the other side of the wave. Since the side that arrives first also slows first, the whole wave bends so that it travels more directly into the glass. Since violet light slows more than red light, the violet light also bends more than the red light. The two colors thus follow different paths through the glass.

The same bending occurs in reverse when the light leaves the glass. Light speeds up as it leaves glass and again the violet light bends more than the red light. In a prism (or any carefully cut glass, crystal, or plastic), the colors of light bend differently at each surface and follow slightly different paths both in and out of the prism. The light rays then appear separately when they strike a surface outside the prism or when you look at those light rays with your eyes.

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