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Change in direction of a wave as it leaves one medium and enters another. Waves, such as sound and light waves, travel at different speeds in different media. When a wave enters a new medium at an angle of less than 90°, the change in speed occurs sooner on one side of the wave than on the other, causing the wave to bend, or refract. When water waves approach shallower water at an angle, they bend and become parallel to the shore. Refraction explains the apparent bending of a pencil when it is partly immersed in water and viewed from above the surface. It also causes the optical illusion of the mirage.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on refraction, visit Britannica.com.