In physics, physical optics, or wave optics, is the branch of optics which studies interference, diffraction, polarization, and other phenomena for which the ray approximation of geometric optics is not valid. This usage tends not to include effects such as quantum noise in optical communication, which is studied in the sub-branch of coherence theory.

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Image formation by flat mirrors
Image formation by curved mirrors: Convex, Concave
Refraction and Snell’s Law
Image formation by thin lenses: Convex and Concave
Interference and Diffraction; Young’s Double-Slit Experiment
Double slit, single slit, and diffraction grating interference
Thin film interference

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Physical optics is also the name of an approximation commonly used in optics, electrical engineering and applied physics. In this context, it is an intermediate method between geometric optics, which ignores wave effects, and full wave electromagnetism, which is a precise theory. The word “physical” means that it is more physical than geometric or ray optics and not that it is an exact physical theory.

This approximation consists of using ray optics to estimate the field on a surface and then integrating that field over the surface to calculate the transmitted or scattered field. This resembles the Born approximation, in that the details of the problem are treated as a perturbation.

In optics, it is a standard way of estimating diffraction effects. In radio, this approximation is used to estimate some effects that resemble optical effects. It models several interference, diffraction and polarization effects but not the dependence of diffraction on polarization. Since it is a high-frequency approximation, it is often more accurate in optics than for radio.

In optics, it typically consists of integrating ray estimated field over a lens, mirror or aperture to calculate the transmitted or scattered field.

In radar scattering it usually means taking the current that would be found on a tangent plane of similar material as the current at each point on the front, i. e. the geometrically illuminated part, of a scatterer. Current on the shadowed parts is taken as zero. The approximate scattered field is then obtained by an integral over these approximate currents. This is useful for bodies with large smooth convex shapes and for lossy (low reflection) surfaces.

The ray optics field or current is generally not accurate near edges or shadow boundaries, unless supplemented by diffraction and creeping wave calculations.

Geometrical optics, or ray optics, describes light propagation in terms of rays. The ray in geometric optics is an abstraction, or instrument, useful in approximating the paths along which light propagates in certain classes of circumstances.

The simplifying assumptions of geometrical optics include that light rays:

  • propagate in rectilinear paths as they travel in a homogeneous medium
  • bend, and in particular circumstances may split in two, at the interface between two dissimilar media
  • follow curved paths in a medium in which the refractive index changes
  • may be absorbed or reflected.

Geometrical optics does not account for certain optical effects such as diffraction and interference. This simplification is useful in practice; it is an excellent approximation when the wavelength is small compared to the size of structures with which the light interacts. The techniques are particularly useful in describing geometrical aspects of imaging, including optical aberrations.