How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1129

What path does sunlight follow for you to see a mirage? — XF
The first step in explaining a mirage is to understand why the sky is blue, or why it has any color at all. If it weren't for the earth's atmosphere, the sky would be black and dotted with stars. That's how the moon's sky appears. But the earth's atmosphere deflects some of the sunlight that passes through it, particularly short-wavelength light such as blue and violet, and this scattered light (Rayleigh scattering) gives the sky its bluish cast. When you look at the blue sky, you're seeing particles of light that have been scattered away from their original paths into new paths so that they reach your eyes from all directions.

The blue light from the sky normally travels directly toward your eyes so that you see it coming from the sky. But when there is a layer of very hot air near the ground in the distance, some of the blue light from the sky in front of you bends upward toward your eyes. This light was traveling toward the ground in front of you at a very shallow angle but it didn't hit the ground. Instead, its entry into the hot air layer bent it upward so that it arced away from the ground and toward your eyes. When you look at the ground far in front of you, you see this deflected light from the blue sky turned up at you by the air and it looks as though it has reflected from a layer of water in front of you. This bending of light that occurs when light goes from higher-density cold air to lower-density hot air is called refraction, the same effect that bends light as light enters a camera lens or a raindrop or a glass of water. Whenever light changes speeds, it can experience refraction and light speeds up in going from cold air to hot air. In this case, the light bends upward, missing the ground and eventually reaching your eyes.


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