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What is a Prism?

Niki Acker
Updated May 21, 2024
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In geometry, prism refers to a certain three-dimensional shape: a polyhedron or star polygon connected to an identical shape by rectangular sides. A cube or rectangular box is one example of this type of prism, but instead of having a rectangle on the top and bottom, as in this example, a geometrical prism may also have a triangle, a six-pointed star, or any other many-sided shape. In optics, a prism is a transparent object with smooth, flat sides that refracts light. Many optical prisms are also geometrical prisms, often triangular prisms, but they may also be other shapes. An optical prism is commonly made of glass or clear plastic, but any material may be used as long as it is transparent to the light source that is to be refracted.

When light is refracted, its course is bent due to an obstacle in its pathway. You can see an example of refracted light by placing a pencil in a clear glass of water and observing how it appears to split where the water begins. This happens because water has a higher refractive index than air, so light moves more slowly through water. An optical prism also has a higher refractive index than air, so light passing through it is refracted.

Light of different frequencies or wavelengths travels at different speeds and refracts at different angles as a result. In the visible spectrum, the portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum visible to the human eye, different frequencies of light appear as different colors. Pure white light is a combination of light of many frequencies, so when pure white light shines through a prism, it breaks up into its constituent wavelengths, creating a rainbow effect.

Red, the lowest frequency visible to the human eye, refracts less than violet, the highest frequency visible to the human eye, so red bends at a less severe angle than violet. All the colors in between bend at different degrees, so the prism makes a rainbow out of white light. This is also how rainbows arise in nature, as they occur when the air is full of water vapor that refracts light in a similar way to a prism.

Other types of prisms have different effects on light. In addition to the refractive prism, a prism may be reflective or polarizing. Reflective prisms reflect light, like a mirror, and are used in binoculars, among other applications. A polarizing prism breaks light up into different polarizations, or electromagnetic charges, rather than different frequencies.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a All The Science editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By AngelChaser — On Jan 25, 2011

One area that prisms are used in extensively is optometry - by shifting corrective lenses off axis, objects seen through them can be displaced in the same way that a prism displaces images. Prisms can be used to treat eye problems such as double vision.

By behaviourism — On Jan 13, 2011

I remember looking at refractive and reflective prisms during middle school while studying the different properties of color and light. I never totally understood most of the concepts, but I remember how almost hypnotizing looking into a prism could be.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a All The Science editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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