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A Common Mirage

Updated on October 5, 2018

A Common Mirage

A common example of a virtual image is a pool of water that appears to lie on the road some distance ahead of you on a sunny day, but that you can never reach. The pool is a mirage (a type of illusion), formed by light rays coming from the low section of the sky in front of you (Fig. 34-1a). As the rays approach the road, they travel through progressively warmer air that has been heated by the road, which is usually relatively warm. With an increase in air temperature, the density of the air and hence the index of refraction of the air decreases slightly. Thus, as the rays descend, encountering progressively smaller indexes of refraction, they continuously bend toward the horizontal (Fig. 34-1b).

Once a ray is horizontal, somewhat above the road’s surface, it still bends because the lower portion of each associated wavefront is in slightly warmer air and is moving slightly faster than the upper portion of the wavefront (Fig. 34-1c). This nonuniform motion of the wavefronts bends the ray upward. As the ray then ascends, it continues to bend upward through progressively greater indexes of refraction (Fig. 34-1d).

If you intercept some of this light, your visual system automatically infers that it originated along a backward extension of the rays you have intercepted and, to make sense of the light, assumes that it came from the road surface. If the light happens to be bluish from blue sky, the mirage appears bluish, like water. Because the air is probably turbulent due to the heating, the mirage shimmies, as if water waves were present. The bluish coloring and the shimmy enhance the illusion of a pool of water, but you are actually seeing a virtual image of a low section of the sky. As you travel toward the illusionary pool, you no longer intercept the shallow refracted rays and the illusion disappears.

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