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....

Summary - Wave Motion

Wave motion differs in three important ways from the motion of material objects:

(1) Waves obey the principle of superposition. When two waves collide, they simply add together.

(2) The medium is not transported along with the wave. The motion of any given point in the medium is a vibration about its equilibrium location, not a steady forward motion.

(3) The velocity of a wave depends on the medium, not on the amount of energy in the wave. (For some types of waves, notably water waves, the velocity may also depend on the shape of the wave.)

Sound waves consist of increases and decreases (typically very small ones) in the density of the air. Light is a wave, but it is a vibration of electric and magnetic fields, not of any physical medium. Light can travel through a vacuum.

A periodic wave is one that creates a periodic motion in a receiver as it passes it. Such a wave has a welldefined period and frequency, and it will also have a wavelength, which is the distance in space between repetitions of the wave pattern. The velocity, frequency, and wavelength of a periodic wave are related by the equation

v = f λ .

A wave emitted by a moving source will be shifted in wavelength and frequency. The shifted wavelength is given by the equation

where v is the velocity of the waves and v s is the velocity of the source, taken to be positive or negative so as to produce a Doppler-lengthened wavelength if the source is receding and a Doppler-shortened one if it approaches. A similar shift occurs if the observer is moving, and in general the Doppler shift depends approximately only on the relative motion of the source and observer if their velocities are both small compared to the waves' velocity. (This is not just approximately but exactly true for light waves, and this fact forms the basis of Einstein's Theory of Relativity.)

Last Update: 2010-11-11