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 Velocity

Suppose that we create a repetitive disturbance by kicking the surface of a swimming pool. We are essentially making a series of wave pulses. The wavelength is simply the distance a pulse is able to travel before we make the next pulse. The distance between pulses is λ, and the time between pulses is the period, T, so the speed of the wave is the distance divided by the time,

v = λ/T .

This important and useful relationship is more commonly written in terms of the frequency,

v = f λ .

A note on dispersive waves The discussion of wave velocity given here is actually a little bit of an oversimplification for a wave whose velocity depends on its frequency and wavelength. Such a wave is called a dispersive wave. Nearly all the waves we deal with in this course are nondispersive, but the issue becomes important in book 6 of this series, where it is discussed in detail in optional section 5.2.

Ultrasound, i.e. sound with frequencies higher than the range of human hearing, was used to make this image of a fetus. The resolution of the image is related to the wavelength, since details smaller than about one wavelength cannot be resolved. High resolution therefore requires a short wavelength, corresponding to a high frequency.

Wavelength of radio waves.

The equation v=f λ defines a fixed relationship between any two of the variables if the other is held fixed. The speed of radio waves in air is almost exactly the same for all wavelengths and frequencies (it is exactly the same if they are in a vacuum), so there is a fixed relationship between their frequency and wavelength. Thus we can say either "Are we on the same wavelength?" or "Are we on the same frequency?"

A different example is the behavior of a wave that travels from a region where the medium has one set of properties to an area where the medium behaves differently. The frequency is now fixed, because otherwise the two portions of the wave would otherwise get out of step, causing a kink or discontinuity at the boundary, which would be unphysical. (A more careful argument is that a kink or discontinuity would have infinite curvature, and waves tend to flatten out their curvature. An infinite curvature would flatten out infinitely fast, i.e. it could never occur in the first place.) Since the frequency must stay the same, any change in the velocity that results from the new medium must cause a change in wavelength.

A water wave traveling into a region with different depth will change its wavelength.

The velocity of water waves depends on the depth of the water, so based on λ=v/f, we see that water waves that move into a region of different depth must change their wavelength, as shown in the figure on the left. This effect can be observed when ocean waves come up to the shore. If the deceleration of the wave pattern is sudden enough, the tip of the wave can curl over, resulting in a breaking wave.

Last Update: 2010-11-11