Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Free Waves

Your vocal cords or a saxophone reed can vibrate, but being able to vibrate wouldn't be of much use unless the vibrations could be transmitted to the listener's ear by sound waves. What are waves and why do they exist? Put your fingertip in the middle of a cup of water and then remove it suddenly. You will have noticed two results that are surprising to most people. First, the flat surface of the water does not simply sink uniformly to fill in the volume vacated by your finger. Instead, ripples spread out, and the process of flattening out occurs over a long period of time, during which the water at the center vibrates above and below the normal water level. This type of wave motion is the topic of the present chapter. Second, you have found that the ripples bounce off of the walls of the cup, in much the same way that a ball would bounce off of a wall. In the next chapter we discuss what happens to waves that have a boundary around them. Until then, we confine ourselves to wave phenomena that can be analyzed as if the medium (e.g. the water) was infinite and the same everywhere.

It isn't hard to understand why removing your fingertip creates ripples rather than simply allowing the water to sink back down uniformly. The initial crater, (a), left behind by your finger has sloping sides, and the water next to the crater flows downhill to fill in the hole. The water far away, on the other hand, initially has no way of knowing what has happened, because there is no slope for it to flow down. As the hole fills up, the rising water at the center gains upward momentum, and overshoots, creating a little hill where there had been a hole originally. The area just outside of this region has been robbed of some of its water in order to build the hill, so a depressed "moat" is formed, (b). This effect cascades outward, producing ripples.

The two circular patterns of ripples pass through each other. Unlike material objects, wave patterns can overlap in space, and when this happens they combine by addition.

Last Update: 2009-06-21