The refractive index (or index of refraction) of a medium is a measure of how much the speed of light (or other waves such as sound waves) is reduced inside the medium. For example, typical soda-lime glass has a refractive index close to 1.5, which means that in glass, light travels at 1 / 1.5 = 2/3 the speed of light in a vacuum. Two common properties of glass and other transparent materials are directly related to their refractive index. First, light rays change direction when they cross the interface from air to the material, an effect that is used in lenses. Second, light reflects partially from surfaces that have a refractive index different from that of their surroundings.

Speed of light[]

Refraction of light at the interface between two media of different refractive indices, with n2 > n1. Since the phase velocity is lower in the second medium (v2 < v1), the angle of refraction θ2 is less than the angle of incidence θ1; that is, the ray in the higher-index medium is closer to the normal.

The speed of all electromagnetic radiation in vacuum is the same, approximately 3×108 m/s, and is denoted by c. Therefore, if v is the phase velocity of radiation of a specific frequency in a specific material, the refractive index is given by

or inversely


This number is typically greater than one: the higher the index of the material, the more the light is slowed down (see also Cherenkov radiation). However, at certain frequencies (e.g. near absorption resonances, and for X-rays), n will actually be smaller than one. This does not contradict the theory of relativity, which holds that no information-carrying signal can ever propagate faster than c, because the phase velocity is not the same as the group velocity or the signal velocity.

Sometimes, a "group velocity refractive index", usually called the group index is defined:

where vg is the group velocity. This value should not be confused with n, which is always defined with respect to the phase velocity. The group index can be written in terms of the wavelength dependence of the refractive index as


where λ is the wavelength in vacuum. At the micro-scale, an electromagnetic wave's phase velocity is slowed in a material because the electric field creates a disturbance in the charges of each atom (primarily the electrons) proportional to the permittivity of the medium. The charges will, in general, oscillate slightly out of phase with respect to the driving electric field. The charges thus radiate their own electromagnetic wave that is at the same frequency but with a phase delay. The macroscopic sum of all such contributions in the material is a wave with the same frequency but shorter wavelength than the original, leading to a slowing of the wave's phase velocity. Most of the radiation from oscillating material charges will modify the incoming wave, changing its velocity. However, some net energy will be radiated in other directions (see scattering).

If the refractive indices of two materials are known for a given frequency, then one can compute the angle by which radiation of that frequency will be refracted as it moves from the first into the second material from Snell's law.

If in a given region the values of refractive indices n or ng were found to differ from unity (whether homogeneously, or isotropically, or not), then this region was distinct from vacuum in the above sense for lacking Poincaré symmetry.


thumb|300px|right|Index of Refraction