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....

The Doppler Effect

The pattern of waves made by a point source moving to the right across the water. Note the shorter wavelength of the forward-emitted waves and the longer wavelength of the backwardgoing ones. (PSSC Physics)

The figure shows the wave pattern made by the tip of a vibrating rod which is moving across the water. If the rod had been vibrating in one place, we would have seen the familiar pattern of concentric circles, all centered on the same point. But since the source of the waves is moving, the wavelength is shortened on one side and lengthened on the other. This is known as the Doppler effect.

Note that the velocity of the waves is a fixed property of the medium, so for example the forward-going waves do not get an extra boost in speed as would a material object like a bullet being shot forward from an airplane.

We can also infer a change in frequency. Since the velocity is constant, the equation v=fλ tells us that the change in wavelength must be matched by an opposite change in frequency: higher frequency for the waves emitted forward, and lower for the ones emitted backward. The frequency Doppler effect is the reason for the familiar dropping-pitch sound of a race car going by. As the car approaches us, we hear a higher pitch, but after it passes us we hear a frequency that is lower than normal.

The Doppler effect will also occur if the observer is moving but the source is stationary. For instance, an observer moving toward a stationary source will perceive one crest of the wave, and will then be surrounded by the next crest sooner than she otherwise would have, because she has moved toward it and hastened her encounter with it. Roughly speaking, the Doppler effect depends only the relative motion of the source and the observer, not on their absolute state of motion (which is not a well-defined notion in physics) or on their velocity relative to the medium.

Restricting ourselves to the case of a moving source, and to waves emitted either directly along or directly against the direction of motion, we can easily calculate the wavelength, or equivalently the frequency, of the Doppler-shifted waves. Let v be the velocity of the waves, and vs the velocity of the source. The wavelength of the forward-emitted waves is shortened by an amount vsT equal to the distance traveled by the source over the course of one period. Using the definition f=1/T and the equation v=fλ, we find for the wavelength λ' of the Doppler-shifted wave the equation

A similar equation can be used for the backward-emitted waves, but with a plus sign rather than a minus sign.

Doppler-shifted sound from a race car.

Doppler shift of the light emitted by a race car.

Optional Topic: A Note on Doppler Shifts of Light

If Doppler shifts depend only on the relative motion of the source and receiver, then there is no way for a person moving with the source and another person moving with the receiver to determine who is moving and who isn't. Either can blame the Doppler shift entirely on the other's motion and claim to be at rest herself. This is entirely in agreement with the principle stated originally by Galileo that all motion is relative.

On the other hand, a careful analysis of the Doppler shifts of water or sound waves shows that it is only approximately true, at low speeds, that the shifts just depend on the relative motion of the source and observer. For instance, it is possible for a jet plane to keep up with its own sound waves, so that the sound waves appear to stand still to the pilot of the plane. The pilot then knows she is moving at exactly the speed of sound. The reason this doesn't disprove the relativity of motion is that the pilot is not really determining her absolute motion but rather her motion relative to the air, which is the medium of the sound waves.

Einstein realized that this solved the problem for sound or water waves, but would not salvage the principle of relative motion in the case of light waves, since light is not a vibration of any physical medium such as water or air. Beginning by imagining what a beam of light would look like to a person riding a motorcycle alongside it, Einstein eventually came up with a radical new way of describing the universe, in which space and time are distorted as measured by observers in different states of motion. As a consequence of this Theory of Relativity, he showed that light waves would have Doppler shifts that would exactly, not just approximately, depend only on the relative motion of the source and receiver.

Discussion Questions


If an airplane travels at exactly the speed of sound, what would be the wavelength of the forward-emitted part of the sound waves it emitted? How should this be interpreted, and what would actually happen? What happens if it's going faster than the speed of sound. The figure shows a fighter jet that has just accelerated past the speed of sound. The sudden decompression of the air causes water droplets to condense, forming a cloud; why is the cloud in the shape of a cone?

B If bullets go slower than the speed of sound, why can a supersonic fighter plane catch up to its own sound, but not to its own bullets?
C If someone inside a plane is talking to you, should their speech be Doppler shifted?

Last Update: 2010-11-11