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The Human Eye and the colourful World

The Human Eye

  • The human eye uses light and enables us to see objects around us.

  • The human eye is one of the most valuable and sensitive sense organs.

  • It enables us to see the wonderful world and the colours around us.

  • On closing the eyes, we can identify objects to some extent by their smell, taste, sound they make or by touch. It is, however, impossible to identify colours while closing the eyes.

  • Thus, of all the sense organs, the human eye is the most significant one as it enables us to see the beautiful, colourful world around us.

  • The human eye is like a camera. It has a lens in its structure.

  • Its lens system forms an image on a light-sensitive screen called the retina.

  • Light enters the eye through a thin membrane called the cornea.

  • It forms the transparent bulge on the front surface of the eyeball as shown in the figure.

- The eyeball is approximately spherical in shape with a diameter of about 2.3 cm.

- Most of the refraction for the light rays entering the eye occurs at the outer surface of the cornea.

- The crystalline lens merely provides the finer adjustment of focal length required to focus objects at different distances on the retina.

- A structure called iris behind the cornea. Iris is a dark muscular diaphragm that controls the size of the pupil.

- The pupil regulates and controls the amount of light entering the eye. The eye lens forms an inverted real image of the object on the retina.

- The retina is a delicate membrane having enormous number of light-sensitive cells.

- The light-sensitive cells get activated upon illumination and generate electrical signals. These signals are sent to the brain via the optic nerves. The brain interprets these signals, and finally, processes the information so that we perceive objects as they are.

Power of Accommodation

  • The eye lens is composed of a fibrous, jelly-like material. Its curvature can be modified to some extent by the ciliary muscles.

  • The change in the curvature of the eye lens can thus change its focal length.

  • When the muscles are relaxed, the lens becomes thin. Thus, its focal length increases. This enables us to see distant objects clearly. When you are looking at objects closer to the eye, the ciliary muscles contract. This increases the curvature of the eye lens. The eye lens then becomes thicker.

  • Consequently, the focal length of the eye lens decreases. This enables us to see nearby objects clearly.

  • The ability of the eye lens to adjust its focal length is called accommodation. OR The ability of the eye to focus on both near and distant objects, by adjusting its focal length, is called the accommodation of the eye.

  • However, the focal length of the eye lens cannot be decreased below a certain minimum limit.

  • To see an object comfortably and distinctly, you must hold it at about 25 cm from the eyes.

  • The minimum distance, at which objects can be seen most distinctly without strain, is called the least distance of distinct vision. It is also called the near point of the eye.

  • For a young adult with normal vision, the near point is about 25 cm. The farthest point upto which the eye can see objects clearly is called the far point of the eye. It is infinity for a normal eye. (note here a normal eye can see objects clearly that are between 25 cm and infinity.)

  • Sometimes, the crystalline lens of people at old age becomes milky and cloudy. This condition is called cataract. This causes partial or complete loss of vision. It is possible to restore vision through a cataract surgery.

Defects of Vision and their Correction

The eye may gradually lose its power of accommodation. In such conditions, the person cannot see the objects distinctly and comfortably. The vision becomes blurred due to the refractive defects of the eye.

There are mainly three refractive defects of vision:

(a) Myopia or near-sightedness.

(b) Hypermetropia or far-sightedness and

(c) Presbyopia

(a) Myopia

  • Myopia is also known as near-sightedness.

  • A person with this defect can see nearby objects clearly but cannot see distant objects distinctly.

  • A person with this defect has the far point nearer than infinity. Such a person may see clearly upto a distance of a few metres.

  • In a myopic eye, the image of a distant object is formed in front of the retina figure (b) and not at the retina itself. This defect may arise due to

(i) excessive curvature of the eye lens, or

(ii) elongation of the eyeball.

  • This defect can be corrected by using a concave lens of suitable power. This is illustrated in figure (c).

  • A concave lens of suitable power will bring the image back on to the retina and thus the defect is corrected.

(b) Hypermetropia

  • Hypermetropia is also known as far-sightedness.

  • A person with hypermetropia can see distant objects clearly but cannot see nearby objects distinctly.

  • The near point, for the person, is farther away from the normal near point (25 cm). Such a person has to keep a reading material much beyond 25 cm from the eye for comfortable reading.

  • This is because the light rays from a close-by object are focused at a point behind the retina as shown in figure (b).

  • This defect arises either because

(i) the focal length of the eye lens is too long, or

(ii) the eyeball has become too small.

  • This defect can be corrected by using a convex lens of appropriate power. This is illustrated in figure (c).

  • Eye-glasses with converging lenses provide the additional focusing power required for forming the image on the retina.

Difference between Myopia and Hypermetropia



An individual is able to see close or nearby objects but not the faraway one in myopia

An individual is able to see faraway objects but not the nearby one in hypermetropia.

Myopia is also known short - sightedness.

Hypermetropia is also known as far - sightedness.

In unfixed myopia, the image falls in front of the retina of the eye.

In unfixed hypermetropia, the image falls behind the retina of the eye.

It happens when the eye ball gets elongated or there is large convergence of eyes.

It happens when the eye ball get shorten or there is lesser convergence of light by the eyes.

Symptoms include squinting, headache, frowning, blurred eyesight.

Fatigued eyes, headache. In kids, strabismus (crossed eyes), can happen when significant long-sightedness has not been.

It can be corrected by the concave lens of suitable focal length.

It can be corrected by the double convex lens of suitable focal length.

(c) Presbyopia

  • The power of accommodation of the eye usually decreases with ageing.

  • For most people, the near point gradually recedes away. They find it difficult to see nearby objects comfortably and distinctly without corrective eye-glasses. This defect is called Presbyopia.

  • It arises due to the gradual weakening of the ciliary muscles and diminishing flexibility of the eye lens.

  • Sometimes, a person may suffer from both myopia and hypermetropia. Such people often require bi-focal lenses. A common type of bi-focal lenses consists of both concave and convex lenses.

  • The upper portion consists of a concave lens. It facilitates distant vision. The lower part is a convex lens. It facilitates near vision.

  • These days, it is possible to correct the refractive defects with contact lenses or through surgical interventions.

Refraction of light through a Prism

- For parallel refracting surfaces, as in a glass slab, the emergent ray is parallel to the incident ray. However, it is slightly displaced laterally.

How would light get refracted through a transparent prism?

  • Consider a triangular glass prism. It has two triangular bases and three rectangular lateral surfaces.

  • These surfaces are inclined to each other. The angle between its two lateral faces is called the angle of the prism.

Let us now do an activity to study the refraction of light through a triangular glass prism.

- Here PE is the incident ray, EF is the refracted ray and FS is the emergent ray.

- You may note that a ray of light is entering from air to glass at the first surface AB. The light ray on refraction has bent towards the normal. At the second surface AC, the light ray has entered from glass to air. Hence it has bent away from normal.

- The peculiar shape of the prism makes the emergent ray bend at an angle to the direction of the incident ray. This angle is called the angle of deviation. In this case D is the angle of deviation.

Dispersion of White light by a Glass Prism

The splitting of white light into its component colours is called dispersion.

The inclined refracting surfaces of a glass prism shows exciting phenomenon i.e., dispersion of white light.

  • The prism has probably split the incident white light into a band of colours. The various colours seen are Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red, as shown in the figure. (The acronym VIBGYOR will help you to remember the sequence of colours.)

  • The band of the coloured components of a light beam is called its spectrum.

  • One might not be able to see all the colours separately. Yet something makes each colour distinct from the other. The splitting of light into its component colours is called dispersion.

  • Different colours of light bend through different angles with respect to the incident ray, as they pass through a prism. The red light bends the least while the violet the most. Thus, the rays of each colour emerge along different paths and thus become distinct. It is the band of distinct colours that we see in a spectrum.

  • Isaac Newton was the first to use a glass prism to obtain the spectrum of sunlight. He tried to split the colours of the spectrum of white light further by using another similar prism.

However, he could not get any more colours. He then placed a second identical prism in an inverted position with respect to the first prism, as shown in the figure.

  • This allowed all the colours of the spectrum to pass through the second prism. He found a beam of white light emerging from the other side of the second prism.

  • This observation gave Newton the idea that the sunlight is made up of seven colours. Any light that gives a spectrum similar to that of sunlight is often referred to as white light.

  • A rainbow is a natural spectrum appearing in the sky after a rain shower. It is caused by dispersion of sunlight by tiny water droplets, present in the atmosphere.

  • A rainbow is always formed in a direction opposite to that of the Sun. The water droplets act like small prisms. They refract and disperse the incident sunlight, then reflect it internally, and finally refract it again when it comes out of the raindrop.

  • Due to the dispersion of light and internal reflection, different colours reach the observer’s eye.

(You can also see a rainbow on a sunny day when you look at the sky through a waterfall or through a water fountain, with the Sun behind you.)

Atmospheric Refraction

- You might have observed the apparent random wavering or flickering of objects seen through a turbulent stream of hot air rising above a fire or a radiator.

- The air just above the fire becomes hotter than the air further up. The hotter air is lighter (less dense) than the cooler air above it, and has a refractive index slightly less than that of the cooler air.

- Since the physical conditions of the refracting medium (air) are not stationary, the apparent position of the object, as seen through the hot air, fluctuates.

- This wavering is thus an effect of atmospheric refraction (refraction of light by the earth’s atmosphere) on a small scale in our local environment. The twinkling of stars is a similar phenomenon on a much larger scale.

Twinkling of stars

  • The twinkling of a star is due to atmospheric refraction of starlight.

  • The starlight, on entering the earth’s atmosphere, undergoes refraction continuously before it reaches the earth.

  • The atmospheric refraction occurs in a medium of gradually changing refractive index.

  • Since the atmosphere bends starlight towards the normal, the apparent position of the star is slightly different from its actual position.

  • The star appears slightly higher (above) than its actual position when viewed near the horizon.

  • Further, this apparent position of the star is not stationary, but keeps on changing slightly, since the physical conditions of the earth’s atmosphere are not stationary.

  • Since the stars are very distant, they approximate point-sized sources of light.

  • As the path of rays of light coming from the star goes on varying slightly, the apparent position of the star fluctuates and the amount of starlight entering the eye flickers – the star sometimes appears brighter, and at some other time, fainter, which is the twinkling effect.

Q: Why don’t the planets twinkle?

A: The planets are much closer to the earth, and are thus seen as extended sources. If we consider a planet as a collection of a large number of point-sized sources of light, the total variation in the amount of light entering our eye from all the individual point-sized sources will average out to zero, thereby nullifying the twinkling effect.

Advance sunrise and delayed sunset

  • The Sun is visible to us about 2 minutes before the actual sunrise, and about 2 minutes after the actual sunset because of atmospheric refraction.

  • By actual sunrise, we mean the actual crossing of the horizon by the Sun.

  • Figure shows the actual and apparent positions of the Sun with respect to the horizon.

  • The time difference between actual sunset and the apparent sunset is about 2 minutes.

  • The apparent flattening of the Sun’s disc at sunrise and sunset is also due to the same phenomenon.

Scattering of Light

- The interplay of light with objects around us gives rise to several spectacular phenomena in nature.

- The blue colour of the sky, colour of water in deep sea, the reddening of the sun at sunrise and the sunset are some of the wonderful phenomena we are familiar with.

- The path of a beam of light passing through a true solution is not visible.

- However, its path becomes visible through a colloidal solution where the size of the particles is relatively larger.

Scattering of light causes the blue colour of sky and the reddening of the Sun at sunrise and sunset.

Tyndall effect

  • The earth’s atmosphere is a heterogeneous mixture of minute particles. These particles include smoke, tiny water droplets, suspended particles of dust and molecules of air.

  • When a beam of light strikes such fine particles, the path of the beam becomes visible. The light reaches us, after being reflected diffusely by these particles.

  • The phenomenon of scattering of light by the colloidal particles gives rise to Tyndall effect. This phenomenon is seen when a fine beam of sunlight enters a smoke-filled room through a small hole.

  • Thus, scattering of light makes the particles visible. Tyndall effect can also be observed when sunlight passes through a canopy of a dense forest. Here, tiny water droplets in the mist scatter light.

The colour of the scattered light depends on the size of the scattering particles.

  • Very fine particles scatter mainly blue light while particles of larger size scatter light of longer wavelengths. If the size of the scattering particles is large enough, then, the scattered light may even appear white.

Why is the colour of the clear Sky Blue?

  • The molecules of air and other fine particles in the atmosphere have size smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

  • These are more effective in scattering light of shorter wavelengths at the blue end than light of longer wavelengths at the red end. The red light has a wavelength about 1.8 times greater than blue light.

  • Thus, when sunlight passes through the atmosphere, the fine particles in air scatter the blue colour (shorter wavelengths) more strongly than red. The scattered blue light enters our eyes. If the earth had no atmosphere, there would not have been any scattering. Then, the sky would have looked dark.

  • The sky appears dark to passengers flying at very high altitudes, as scattering is not prominent at such heights.

Do you know why the ‘danger’ signal lights are red in colour?

The red is least scattered by fog or smoke. Therefore, it can be seen in the same colour at a distance.

Colour of the sun at sunrise and sunset

Let us understand an activity to understand the blue colour of the sky and the reddish appearance of the Sun at the sunrise or sunset.

  • You will find fine microscopic sulphur particles precipitating in about 2 to 3 minutes.

  • As the sulphur particles begin to form, you can observe the blue light from the three sides of the glass tank. This is due to scattering of short wavelengths by minute colloidal sulphur particles.

  • Observe the colour of the transmitted light from the fourth side of the glass tank facing the circular hole. It is interesting to observe at first the orange red colour and then bright crimson red colour on the screen.

  • This activity demonstrates the scattering of light that helps you to understand the bluish colour of the sky and the reddish appearance of the Sun at the sunrise or the sunset.

  • Light from the Sun near the horizon passes through thicker layers of air and larger distance in the earth’s atmosphere before reaching our eyes.

  • However, light from the Sun overhead would travel relatively shorter distance. At noon, the Sun appears white as only a little of the blue and violet colours are scattered.

  • Near the horizon, most of the blue light and shorter wavelengths are scattered away by the particles. Therefore, the light that reaches us eyes is of longer wavelengths. This gives rise to the reddish appearance of the Sun.

Why are Sunsets Red?


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