How sound is refracted towards the regions of minimum speed.

Students acting out the process of sound being refracted towards the region of minimum speed.

We’ve been talking about refraction lately. Waves get bent in the direction of lower velocity. This holds for light and sound and even ocean waves. However, students find it conceptually difficult to understand why waves are being bent towards lower rather than higher speeds, so I came up with this very simple demonstration.

Students, arms joint, are acting as a wave crest. Students on the one side of the student chain are told to move very slowly, students on the other side are asked to move quickly towards the instructor. Everybody takes care to not hurt anybody, so if tension builds up in the chain, everybody has to react to reduce the tension. What happens is that the “wave crest” of students changes direction towards the side of the slowest motion.

Easy visualization and – since it involved students getting up, joining arms and doing something – also very memorable. Win – win!

Another easy example: When you are sliding on an icy road and your foot gets caught in grass or gravel or something on one side (== region of lower velocity), you start skidding towards the side with the obstacle, not towards the middle of the icy road.

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