Optical Property of Ellipse: What is it?
A Mathematical Droodle
Optical Property (Reflection Law)
One of the definitions of ellipse is that it is a locus of points the sum of whose distances from the given two points is constant. The latter are called the foci of the ellipse. Under other definitions, the distance preservation becomes a property, among many others. As such, it is known as the Focal property of the ellipse.
One remarkable property is common to all conic sections and has been established for parabola independently. Let T be a point on an ellipse with foci F1 and F2. The segments F1T and F2T are known as focal radii of point T. The property we are going to prove is alternatively called the Optical property, Mirror property, Reflective property, and Reflection law. It says that
The focal radii of a point on an ellipse form equal angles with the tangent to the ellipse at that point.
Light reflects off a curved surface by forming equal (incidence and reflection) angles with the tangent at the point it falls on the surface. So locally a surface (curve) behaves like a flat plane (straight line). In the latter case of a straight line, the optical property has an expression in Heron's theorem, which finds a point on a line the sum of whose distances to two given points (on the same side from the line) is minimum. Heron's theorem helps explain the reflective property of ellipse.
Two points, say F1 and F2, in the plane define a function
f(M) = |F1M| + |F2M|
which is the sum of distances from the two points to a point M. By definition, ellipse is a level curve of that function, i.e., a curve where the function is constant:
Choose one ellipse from the family, a point T on it and the tangent to the ellipse at T. The tangent has a single point in common with the selected ellipse. All its other points are outside that ellipse, i.e. on the ellipses with the values of f(M) greater than at T:
Other properties follow from this one. For example, denote P2 the pedal point (the foot of the perpendicular) of F2 on the tangent and R2 the reflection of F2 in the tangent. P2 is the midpoint of F2R2. Also,
|F1R2| = |F1T| + |TR2| = |F1T| + |F2T| = C = const.
Therefore all such reflections of F2 in the tangents to the ellipse lie at the same distance from F1, i.e., on a circle with center at F1.It follows that the midpoints P2 of the segments F2R2 lie on the circle with center at the center O of the ellipse and the radius equal to half the constant C. This constant C/2 is equal to the major semiaxis of the ellipse. Thus the circle of radius C/2 and center at the center of the ellipse
- V. Gutenmacher, N. Vasilyev, Lines and Curves: A Practical Geometry Handbook , Birkhauser; 1 edition (July 23, 2004)
- R. C. Yates, Curves and Their Properties, NCTM, 1974 (J. W. Edwards, 1959)
- C. Zwikker, The Advanced Geometry of Plane Curves and Their Applications, Dover, 2005
Conic Sections > Ellipse
- What Is Ellipse?
- Analog device simulation for drawing ellipses
- Angle Bisectors in Ellipse
- Angle Bisectors in Ellipse II
- Between Major and Minor Circles
- Brianchon in Ellipse
- Butterflies in Ellipse
- Concyclic Points of Two Ellipses with Orthogonal Axes
- Conic in Hexagon
- Conjugate Diameters in Ellipse
- Dynamic construction of ellipse and other curves
- Ellipse Between Two Circles
- Ellipse in Arbelos
- Ellipse Touching Sides of Triangle at Midpoints
- Euclidean Construction of Center of Ellipse
- Euclidean Construction of Tangent to Ellipse
- Focal Definition of Ellipse
- Focus and Directrix of Ellipse
- From Foci to a Tangent in Ellipse
- Gergonne in Ellipse
- Pascal in Ellipse
- La Hire's Theorem in Ellipse
- Maximum Perimeter Property of the Incircle
- Optical Property of Ellipse
- Parallel Chords in Ellipse
- Poncelet Porism in Ellipses
- Reflections in Ellipse
- Three Squares and Two Ellipses
- Three Tangents, Three Chords in Ellipse
- Van Schooten's Locus Problem
- Two Circles, Ellipse, and Parallel Lines