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....

Bounded Waves

A cross-sectional view of a human body, showing the vocal tract.

Speech is what separates humans most decisively from animals. No other species can master syntax, and even though chimpanzees can learn a vocabulary of hand signs, there is an unmistakable difference between a human infant and a baby chimp: starting from birth, the human experiments with the production of complex speech sounds.

Since speech sounds are instinctive for us, we seldom think about them consciously. How do we do control sound waves so skillfully? Mostly we do it by changing the shape of a connected set of hollow cavities in our chest, throat, and head. Somehow by moving the boundaries of this space in and out, we can produce all the vowel sounds. Up until now, we have been studying only those properties of waves that can be understood as if they existed in an infinite, open space with no boundaries. In this chapter we address what happens when a wave is confined within a certain space, or when a wave pattern encounters the boundary between two different media, such as when a light wave moving through air encounters a glass windowpane.

Last Update: 2009-06-21