Reflection is the abrupt change in the direction of propagation of a wave that strikes the boundary between different mediums. At least part of the oncoming wave disturbance remains in the same medium. Regular reflection, which follows a simple law, occurs at plane boundaries. The angle between the direction of motion of the oncoming wave and a perpendicular to the reflecting surface (angle of incidence) is equal to the angle between the direction of motion of the reflected wave and a perpendicular (angle of reflection). Reflection at rough, or irregular, boundaries is diffuse. The reflectivity of a surface material is the fraction of energy of the oncoming wave that is reflected by it.
Refraction is the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another caused by its change in speed. For example, waves in deep water travel faster than in shallow; if an ocean wave approaches a beach obliquely, the part of the wave farther from the beach will move faster than that closer in, and so the wave will swing around until it moves in a direction perpendicular to the shoreline. The speed of sound waves is greater in warm air than in cold; at night, air is cooled at the surface of a lake, and any sound that travels upward is refracted down by the higher layers of air that still remain warm. Thus, sounds, such as voices and music, can be heard much farther across water at night than in the daytime.
The electromagnetic waves constituting light are refracted when crossing the boundary from one transparent medium to another because of their change in speed. A straight stick appears bent when partly immersed in water and viewed at an angle to the surface other than 90. A ray of light of one wavelength, or color
(different wavelengths appear as different colors to the human eye), in passing from air to glass is refracted, or bent, by an amount that depends on its speed in air and glass, the two speeds depending on the wavelength. A ray of sunlight is composed of many wavelengths that in combination appear to be colourless; upon entering a glass prism, the different refractions of the various wavelengths spread them apart as in a rainbow.
Diffraction is the spreading of waves around obstacles. Diffraction takes place with sound; with electromagnetic radiation, such as light, X-rays, and gamma rays; and with very small moving particles such as atoms, neutrons, and electrons, which show wavelike properties. One consequence of diffraction is that sharp shadows are not produced. The phenomenon is the result of interference (i.e., when waves are superimposed, they may reinforce or cancel each other out) and is most pronounced when the wavelength of the radiation is comparable to the linear dimensions of the obstacle. When sound of various wavelengths or frequencies is emitted from a loudspeaker, the loudspeaker itself acts as an obstacle and casts a shadow to its rear so that only the longer bass notes are diffracted there. When a beam of light falls on the edge of an object, it will not continue in a straight line but will be slightly bent by the contact, causing a blur at the edge of the shadow of the object; the amount of bending will be proportional to the wavelength. When a stream of fast particles impinges on the atoms of a crystal, their paths are bent into a regular pattern, which can be recorded by directing the diffracted beam onto a photographic film.