Ray Diagrams
Light Sound and Waves

Ray diagrams

Physics Narrative for 11-14 Supporting Physics Teaching

Predicting what will happen using ray diagrams

One of the distinctive and interesting features of teaching and learning about light is the way in which ideas and explanations are represented with ray diagrams. Rather than just talking through an explanation for some effect or other, you'll often find yourself constructing and referring to a ray diagram and asking pupils to look at it this way.

This ray diagram shows the formation of a shadow by an opaque barrier. This might represent what happens when a narrow-beam torch forms the shadow of a book on a wall. This model represents the actual event in a number of ways:

  • The light source is represented as a single point.
  • Just two rays are shown, as straight lines drawn from the source.
  • The direction of drawing for each ray is shown by an arrow.
  • The book is represented as an opaque barrier.
  • The position of the shadow on the wall is located between the points where the two rays meet the screen.

Drawing ray diagrams

When drawing ray diagrams, it is important that you make explicit to the pupils the steps in thinking which lie behind them. In the teaching approaches section we demonstrate how simple ray diagrams might be introduced to make that thinking clear. It's important to keep front and centre that these are special drawings for a particular purpose: there are a lot of choice to be made.

Teacher Tip: Share the choices that you make in selecting the rays that you draw.

An important feature of ray diagrams is not only that they can be used to explain phenomena, but also that they can also be used to predict. For example, in the case of the simple shadow:

  • What happens to the size of the shadow as the torch is moved closer to the opaque barrier? (The shadow on the screen increases in size).
  • What happens to the size of the shadow as the screen is moved away from the opaque barrier? (The shadow on the screen increases in size).

Beyond simple shadows

You can add additional rather ad-hoc rules to prescribe the drawing of the rays that produce diagrams to predict:

  • refraction if there is change in medium between source and detector)
  • reflection, if there is a reflector between source and medium

For now, we suggest investing quite some time exploring the predictions due to rays and shadows, using simple geometrical arguments. Later the additional rules will allow you to construct ray diagrams for prisms and lenses, and later on still you may come to understand why these rules are true, and not just seemingly arbitrary rules. Its perhaps worth looking at the code to the models below to figure out how the diagrams were drawn, as that may give a preview of the rules.

There remains a real mystery here: why does the beam of light do this? That's for later: more in the SPT: Radiations and radiating topic.

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