A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus

I’m pleased to say that my latest paper, “A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus,” has now been published in College Mathematics Journal. The article is now available for online access to anyone who has access to the journal — usually, that means members of the Mathematical Association of America or anyone whose employer (say, a university) has institutional access. I expect that it will be in the printed edition of the journal later this year; however, I’ve not been told yet the issue in which it will appear.

Because of copyright issues, I can’t reproduce my new derivation of Snell’s Law here on the blog, so let me instead summarize the main idea. Snell’s Law (see Wikipedia) dictates the angle at which light is refracted when it passes from one medium (say, air) into another (say, water). If the velocity of light through air is v_1 while its velocity in water is v_2, then Snell’s Law says that

\displaystyle \frac{\sin \theta_1}{v_1} = \displaystyle \frac{\sin \theta_2}{v_2}

From Wikipedia

I was asked by a bright student who was learning physics if there was a way to prove Snell’s Law without using calculus. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of Huygens’s Principle (see OpenStax) and I didn’t have a good answer. I had only seen derivations of Snell’s Law using the first-derivative test, which is a standard optimization problem found in most calculus books (again, see Wikipedia) based on Fermat’s Principle that light travels along a path that minimizes time.

Anyway, after a couple of days, I found an elementary proof that does not require proof. I should warn that the word “elementary” can be a loaded word when used by mathematicians. The proof uses only concepts found in Precalculus, especially rotating a certain hyperbola and careful examining the domain of two functions. So while the proof does not use calculus, I can’t say that the proof is particularly easy — especially compared to the classical proof using Huygens’s Principle.

That said, I’m pretty sure that my proof is original, and I’m pretty proud of it.

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