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....

# Wave Motion

There are three main ways in which wave motion differs from the motion of objects made of matter.

### Superposition

The first, and most profound, difference between wave motion and the motion of objects is that waves do not display any repulsion of each other analogous to the normal forces between objects that come in contact. Two wave patterns can therefore overlap in the same region of space, as shown in the figure at the top of the page. Where the two waves coincide, they add together. For instance, suppose that at a certain location in at a certain moment in time, each wave would have had a crest 3 cm above the normal water level. The waves combine at this point to make a 6-cm crest. We use negative numbers to represent depressions in the water. If both waves would have had a troughs measuring -3 cm, then they combine to make an extradeep -6 cm trough. A +3 cm crest and a -3 cm trough result in a height of zero, i.e. the waves momentarily cancel each other out at that point. This additive rule is referred to as the principle of superposition, "superposition" being merely a fancy word for "adding."

Superposition can occur not just with sinusoidal waves like the ones in the figure above but with waves of any shape. The figures on the following page show superposition of wave pulses. A pulse is simply a wave of very short duration. These pulses consist only of a single hump or trough. If you hit a clothesline sharply, you will observe pulses heading off in both directions. This is analogous to the way ripples spread out in all directions when you make a disturbance at one point on water. The same occurs when the hammer on a piano comes up and hits a string.

Experiments to date have not shown any deviation from the principle of superposition in the case of light waves. For other types of waves, it is typically a very good approximation for low-energy waves.

Discussion Questions

A In figure (c) below, the fifth frame shows the spring just about perfectly flat. If the two pulses have essentially canceled each other out perfectly, then why does the motion pick up again? Why doesn't the spring just stay flat?

 These pictures show the motion of wave pulses along a spring. To make a pulse, one end of the spring was shaken by hand. Movies were filmed, and a series of frames chosen to show the motion. (a) A pulse travels to the left. (b) Superposition of two colliding positive pulses. (c) Superposition of two colliding pulses, one positive and one negative. (PSSC Physics)

### The medium is not transported with the wave.

 As the wave pattern passes the rubber duck, the duck stays put. The water isn't moving with the wave.

The sequence of three photos above shows a series of water waves before it has reached a rubber duck (left), having just passed the duck (middle) and having progressed about a meter beyond the duck (right). The duck bobs around its initial position, but is not carried along with the wave. This shows that the water itself does not flow outward with the wave. If it did, we could empty one end of a swimming pool simply by kicking up waves! We must distinguish between the motion of the medium (water in this case) and the motion of the wave pattern through the medium. The medium vibrates; the wave progresses through space.

Self-Check

 As the wave pulse goes by, the ribbon tied to the spring is not carried along. The motion of the wave pattern is to the right, but the medium (spring) is moving from side to side, not to the right. (PSSC Physics)

In the photos above, you can detect the side-to-side motion of the spring because the spring appears blurry. At a certain instant, represented by a single photo, how would you describe the motion of the different parts of the spring? Other than the flat parts, do any parts of the spring have zero velocity?

Answer The leading edge is moving up, the trailing edge is moving down, and the top of the hump is motionless for one instant.

The incorrect belief that the medium moves with the wave is often reinforced by garbled secondhand knowledge of surfing. Anyone who has actually surfed knows that the front of the board pushes the water to the sides, creating a wake. If the water was moving along with the wave and the surfer, this wouldn't happen. The surfer is carried forward because forward is downhill, not because of any forward flow of the water. If the water was flowing forward, then a person floating in the water up to her neck would be carried along just as quickly as someone on a surfboard. In fact, it is even possible to surf down the back side of a wave, although the ride wouldn't last very long because the surfer and the wave would quickly part company.

### A wave's velocity depends on the medium.

 The wave pattern moves to the left while the earthworm moves to the right. The medium - the worm's body segments - does not move along with the wave pattern.

A material object can move with any velocity, and can be sped up or slowed down by a force that increases or decreases its kinetic energy. Not so with waves. The magnitude of a wave's velocity depends on the properties of the medium (and perhaps also on the shape of the wave, for certain types of waves). Sound waves travel at about 340 m/s in air, 1000 m/s in helium. If you kick up water waves in a pool, you will find that kicking harder makes waves that are taller (and therefore carry more energy), not faster. The sound waves from an exploding stick of dynamite carry a lot of energy, but are no faster than any other waves. In the following section we will give an example of the physical relationship between the wave speed and the properties of the medium.

Once a wave is created, the only reason its speed will change is if it enters a different medium or if the properties of the medium change. It is not so surprising that a change in medium can slow down a wave, but the reverse can also happen. A sound wave traveling through a helium balloon will slow down when it emerges into the air, but if it enters another balloon it will speed back up again! Similarly, water waves travel more quickly over deeper water, so a wave will slow down as it passes over an underwater ridge, but speed up again as it emerges into deeper water.

 Hull speed.

#### Wave patterns

 Circular and linear wave patterns, with velocity vectors shown at selected points.

If the magnitude of a wave's velocity vector is preordained, what about its direction? Waves spread out in all directions from every point on the disturbance that created them. If the disturbance is small, we may consider it as a single point, and in the case of water waves the resulting wave pattern is the familiar circular ripple. If, on the other hand, we lay a pole on the surface of the water and wiggle it up and down, we create a linear wave pattern. For a three-dimensional wave such as a sound wave, the analogous patterns would be spherical waves (visualize concentric spheres) and plane waves (visualize a series of pieces of paper, each separated from the next by the same gap).

Infinitely many patterns are possible, but linear or plane waves are often the simplest to analyze, because the velocity vector is in the same direction no matter what part of the wave we look at. Since all the velocity vectors are parallel to one another, the problem is effectively one-dimensional. Throughout this chapter and the next, we will restrict ourselves mainly to wave motion in one dimension, while not hesitating to broaden our horizons when it can be done without too much complication.

Discussion Questions

 A [see above] B Sketch two positive wave pulses on a string that are overlapping but not right on top of each other, and draw their superposition. Do the same for a positive pulse running into a negative pulse. C A traveling wave pulse is moving to the right on a string. Sketch the velocity vectors of the various parts of the string. Now do the same for a pulse moving to the left. D In a spherical sound wave spreading out from a point, how would the energy of the wave fall off with distance?

Last Update: 2009-06-21