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  • If you've read chapter 6, you've been introduced to the idea that the universe isn't really mechanical in nature. It's made of fields of force. When a radio antenna makes a disturbance in the electric and magnetic fields, those disturbances travel outward like ripples on a pond. In other words, waves are fundamental to the way the universe works.


    'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

    8.1 Vibrations

    Your radio dial is calibrated in units of frequency, the simplest example of this concept is provided not by a wave but by a vibrating physical object such as a mass on the end of a spring, 8. With no forces on it, the spring assumes its equilibrium length, 8/1. It can be stretched, 2, or compressed, 3. We attach the spring to a wall on the left and to a mass on the right. If we now hit the mass with a hammer, 4, it oscillates as shown in the series of snapshots, 4-13. If we assume that the mass slides back and forth without friction and that the motion is one-dimensional, then conservation of energy proves that the motion must be repetitive. When the block comes back to its initial position again, 7, its potential energy is the same again, so it must have the same kinetic energy again. The motion is in the opposite direction, however. Finally, at 10, it returns to its initial position with the same kinetic energy and the same direction of motion. The motion has gone through one complete cycle, and will now repeat forever in the absence of friction.


    a / A spring has an equilibrium length, 1, and can be stretched, 2, or compressed, 3. A mass attached to the spring can be set into motion initially, 4, and will then vibrate, 4-13.

    The usual physics terminology for motion that repeats itself over and over is periodic motion, and the time required for one repetition is called the period, T. One complete repetition of the motion is called a cycle.

    We are used to referring to short-period sound vibrations as “high” in pitch, and it sounds odd to have to say that high pitches have low periods. It is therefore more common to discuss the rapidity of a vibration in terms of the number of vibrations per second, a quantity called the frequency, f. Since the period is the number of seconds per cycle and the frequency is the number of cycles per second, they are reciprocals of each other,

    \[f = \dfrac{1}{T}\]

    Units of inverse second, s-1, are awkward in speech, so an abbreviation has been created. One Hertz, named in honor of a pioneer of radio technology, is one cycle per second. In abbreviated form, 1 Hz=1 s-1. This is the familiar unit used for the frequencies on the radio dial.

    Example 1: Frequency of a Radio Station

    KKJZ's frequency is 88.1 MHz. What does this mean, and what period does this correspond to?

    The metric prefix M- is mega-, i.e., millions. The radio waves emitted by KKJZ's transmitting antenna vibrate 88.1 million times per second. This corresponds to a period of

    T = 1/f= 1.14×10-8 s .

    This example shows a second reason why we normally speak in terms of frequency rather than period: it would be painful to have to refer to such small time intervals routinely. I could abbreviate by telling people that KKJZ's period was 11.4 nanoseconds, but most people are more familiar with the big metric prefixes than with the small ones.

    Units of frequency are also commonly used to specify the speeds of computers. The idea is that all the little circuits on a computer chip are synchronized by the very fast ticks of an electronic clock, so that the circuits can all cooperate on a task without getting ahead or behind. Adding two numbers might require, say, 30 clock cycles. Microcomputers these days operate at clock frequencies of about a gigahertz.

    We have discussed how to measure how fast something vibrates, but not how big the vibrations are. The general term for this is amplitude, A. The definition of amplitude depends on the system being discussed, and two people discussing the same system may not even use the same definition. In the example of the block on the end of the spring, 8.1/1, the amplitude will be measured in distance units such as cm. One could work in terms of the distance traveled by the block from the extreme left to the extreme right, but it would be somewhat more common in physics to use the distance from the center to one extreme. The former is usually referred to as the peak-to-peak amplitude, since the extremes of the motion look like mountain peaks or upside-down mountain peaks on a graph of position versus time.

    In other situations we would not even use the same units for amplitude. The amplitude of a child on a swing, or a pendulum, 8.1/2, would most conveniently be measured as an angle, not a distance, since her feet will move a greater distance than her head. The electrical vibrations in a radio receiver would be measured in electrical units such as volts or amperes.

    In many physical examples of vibrations, the force that brings the vibrating object back to equilibrium gets stronger and stronger as the object gets father and farther from equilibrium, and the force is directly proportional to the distance from equilibrium. Most springs behave this way, for example, so for example we'd expect that the spring in figure 8 would make very nearly twice the force when stretched twice as much. We then define a spring constant,, which tells us how many newtons of force we get per meter of stretching. For example, the John Hancock Tower has a spring constant of about 200 MN/m (meganewtons per meter), meaning that the wind must exert a force of about 200 MN in order to make the tower sway by one meter. To make it sway by two meters, the force would have to be 400 MN.


    c / The John Hancock Tower in Boston vibrates naturally at a frequency of 0.14 Hz. Surprisingly, this frequency is the same regardless of the amplitude of the vibrations

    When the force has this type of mathematical behavior, the resulting motion is known as simple harmonic motion. One surprising and useful fact about simple harmonic motion is that its frequency is independent of amplitude. Intuitively, we would expect that vibrations with a greater amplitude would take more time, i.e., have a lower frequency. However, when the amplitude is greater, the force accelerating the mass back toward the equilibrium position is also greater, and this turns out to compensate exactly for the need to travel a greater distance. Legend has it that Galileo first noticed this fact when he watched a chandelier swinging during a church service, and timed it against his pulse. Mathematically, the frequency of vibration is given by

    \[f=\dfrac{1}{2\pi} \sqrt{\dfrac{k}{m}}\]


    • \(k\) is the spring constant, and
    • \(m\) is the mass that is vibrating.


    b / 1. The amplitude of the vibrations of the mass on a spring could be defined in two different ways. It would have units of distance. 2. The amplitude of a swinging pendulum would more naturally be defined as an angle.


    d / The two circular patterns of ripples pass through each other. Unlike material objects, wave patterns can overlap in space, and when this happens they combine by addition.

    8.2 Wave Motion

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

    1. 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 extra-deep -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.

    Discussion Question

    In figure e, 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?


    e / 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 frame chosen to show the motion. 1. A pulse travels to the left. 2. Superposition of two colliding positive pulses. 3. Superposition of two colliding pulses, one positive and one negative.


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

    2. The medium is not transported with the wave

    Figure f 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.



    g / 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 up and down, not to the right.

    In figure g, 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?

    Example 2: Worm in Motion

    The worm in the figure is moving to the right. The wave pattern, a pulse consisting of a compressed area of its body, moves to the left. In other words, the motion of the wave pattern is in the opposite direction compared to the motion of the medium.


    Example 3: Sufing

    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 --- the surfer can even drag his hand through the water, as in in figure h. 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 were 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.


    h / Example 3. The surfer is dragging his hand in the water.

    3. A wave's velocity depends on the medium

    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.

    Example 4: Breaking waves

    The velocity of water waves increases with depth. The crest of a wave travels faster than the trough, and this can cause the wave to break.


    i / Example 4: a breaking wave.

    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.

    Example 4: Hull Speed

    The speeds of most boats, and of some surface-swimming animals, are limited by the fact that they make a wave due to their motion through the water. The boat in figure j is going at the same speed as its own waves, and can't go any faster. No matter how hard the boat pushes against the water, it can't make the wave move ahead faster and get out of the way. The wave's speed depends only on the medium. Adding energy to the wave doesn't speed it up, it just increases its amplitude.


    j / Example 5. The boat has run up against a limit on its speed because it can't climb over its own wave. Dolphins get around the problem by leaping out of the water.

    A water wave, unlike many other types of wave, has a speed that depends on its shape: a broader wave moves faster. The shape of the wave made by a boat tends to mold itself to the shape of the boat's hull, so a boat with a longer hull makes a broader wave that moves faster. The maximum speed of a boat whose speed is limited by this effect is therefore closely related to the length of its hull, and the maximum speed is called the hull speed. Sailboats designed for racing are not just long and skinny to make them more streamlined --- they are also long so that their hull speeds will be high.

    Wave patterns

    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, k/1. 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, k/2. For a three-dimensional wave such as a sound wave, the analogous patterns would be spherical waves and plane waves, l.


    k / Circular and linear wave patterns.

    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.


    l / Plane and spherical wave patterns.

    Discussion Questions

    • 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.
    • 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.
    • In a spherical sound wave spreading out from a point, how would the energy of the wave fall off with distance?

    8.3 Sound and Light Waves

    Sound waves

    The phenomenon of sound is easily found to have all the characteristics we expect from a wave phenomenon:

    • Sound waves obey superposition. Sounds do not knock other sounds out of the way when they collide, and we can hear more than one sound at once if they both reach our ear simultaneously.
    • The medium does not move with the sound. Even standing in front of a titanic speaker playing earsplitting music, we do not feel the slightest breeze.
    • The velocity of sound depends on the medium. Sound travels faster in helium than in air, and faster in water than in helium. Putting more energy into the wave makes it more intense, not faster. For example, you can easily detect an echo when you clap your hands a short distance from a large, flat wall, and the delay of the echo is no shorter for a louder clap.

    Although not all waves have a speed that is independent of the shape of the wave, and this property therefore is irrelevant to our collection of evidence that sound is a wave phenomenon, sound does nevertheless have this property. For instance, the music in a large concert hall or stadium may take on the order of a second to reach someone seated in the nosebleed section, but we do not notice or care, because the delay is the same for every sound. Bass, drums, and vocals all head outward from the stage at 340 m/s, regardless of their differing wave shapes.

    If sound has all the properties we expect from a wave, then what type of wave is it? It must be a vibration of a physical medium such as air, since the speed of sound is different in different media, such as helium or water. Further evidence is that we don't receive sound signals that have come to our planet through outer space. The roars and whooshes of Hollywood's space ships are fun, but scientifically wrong.1

    We can also tell that sound waves consist of compressions and expansions, rather than sideways vibrations like the shimmying of a snake. Only compressional vibrations would be able to cause your eardrums to vibrate in and out. Even for a very loud sound, the compression is extremely weak; the increase or decrease compared to normal atmospheric pressure is no more than a part per million. Our ears are apparently very sensitive receivers!

    Light waves

    Entirely similar observations lead us to believe that light is a wave, although the concept of light as a wave had a long and tortuous history. It is interesting to note that Isaac Newton very influentially advocated a contrary idea about light. The belief that matter was made of atoms was stylish at the time among radical thinkers (although there was no experimental evidence for their existence), and it seemed logical to Newton that light as well should be made of tiny particles, which he called corpuscles (Latin for “small objects”). Newton's triumphs in the science of mechanics, i.e., the study of matter, brought him such great prestige that nobody bothered to question his incorrect theory of light for 150 years. One persuasive proof that light is a wave is that according to Newton's theory, two intersecting beams of light should experience at least some disruption because of collisions between their corpuscles. Even if the corpuscles were extremely small, and collisions therefore very infrequent, at least some dimming should have been measurable. In fact, very delicate experiments have shown that there is no dimming.

    The wave theory of light was entirely successful up until the 20th century, when it was discovered that not all the phenomena of light could be explained with a pure wave theory. It is now believed that both light and matter are made out of tiny chunks which have both wave and particle properties. For now, we will content ourselves with the wave theory of light, which is capable of explaining a great many things, from cameras to rainbows.

    If light is a wave, what is waving? What is the medium that wiggles when a light wave goes by? It isn't air. A vacuum is impenetrable to sound, but light from the stars travels happily through zillions of miles of empty space. Light bulbs have no air inside them, but that doesn't prevent the light waves from leaving the filament. For a long time, physicists assumed that there must be a mysterious medium for light waves, and they called it the aether (not to be confused with the chemical). Supposedly the aether existed everywhere in space, and was immune to vacuum pumps. We now know that, as discussed in chapter 6, light can instead be explained as a wave pattern made up of electrical and magnetic fields.

    8.4 Periodic Waves


    m / A graph of pressure versus time for a periodic sound wave, the vowel “ah.”


    n / A similar graph for a non-periodic wave, “sh.”


    o / A strip chart recorder.


    p / A water wave profile created by a series of repeating pulses.


    s / A water wave traveling into a region with a different depth changes its wavelength.

    Period and frequency of a periodic wave

    You choose a radio station by selecting a certain frequency. We have already defined period and frequency for vibrations, but what do they signify in the case of a wave? We can recycle our previous definition simply by stating it in terms of the vibrations that the wave causes as it passes a receiving instrument at a certain point in space. For a sound wave, this receiver could be an eardrum or a microphone. If the vibrations of the eardrum repeat themselves over and over, i.e., are periodic, then we describe the sound wave that caused them as periodic. Likewise we can define the period and frequency of a wave in terms of the period and frequency of the vibrations it causes. As another example, a periodic water wave would be one that caused a rubber duck to bob in a periodic manner as they passed by it.

    The period of a sound wave correlates with our sensory impression of musical pitch. A high frequency (short period) is a high note. The sounds that really define the musical notes of a song are only the ones that are periodic. It is not possible to sing a non-periodic sound like “sh” with a definite pitch.

    The frequency of a light wave corresponds to color. Violet is the high-frequency end of the rainbow, red the low-frequency end. A color like brown that does not occur in a rainbow is not a periodic light wave. Many phenomena that we do not normally think of as light are actually just forms of light that are invisible because they fall outside the range of frequencies our eyes can detect. Beyond the red end of the visible rainbow, there are infrared and radio waves. Past the violet end, we have ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

    Graphs of waves as a function of position

    Some waves, light sound waves, are easy to study by placing a detector at a certain location in space and studying the motion as a function of time. The result is a graph whose horizontal axis is time. With a water wave, on the other hand, it is simpler just to look at the wave directly. This visual snapshot amounts to a graph of the height of the water wave as a function of position. Any wave can be represented in either way.

    An easy way to visualize this is in terms of a strip chart recorder, an obsolescing device consisting of a pen that wiggles back and forth as a roll of paper is fed under it. It can be used to record a person's electrocardiogram, or seismic waves too small to be felt as a noticeable earthquake but detectable by a seismometer. Taking the seismometer as an example, the chart is essentially a record of the ground's wave motion as a function of time, but if the paper was set to feed at the same velocity as the motion of an earthquake wave, it would also be a full-scale representation of the profile of the actual wave pattern itself. Assuming, as is usually the case, that the wave velocity is a constant number regardless of the wave's shape, knowing the wave motion as a function of time is equivalent to knowing it as a function of position.


    Any wave that is periodic will also display a repeating pattern when graphed as a function of position. The distance spanned by one repetition is referred to as one wavelength. The usual notation for wavelength is λ, the Greek letter lambda. Wavelength is to space as period is to time.


    q / Wavelengths of linear and circular water waves.

    Wave velocity related to frequency and wavelength

    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 .

    Example 6: Wavelength of radio waves

    • The speed of light is 3.0×108 m/s. What is the wavelength of the radio waves emitted by KKJZ, a station whose frequency is 88.1 MHz?
    • Solving for wavelength, we have


    The size of a radio antenna is closely related to the wavelength of the waves it is intended to receive. The match need not be exact (since after all one antenna can receive more than one wavelength!), but the ordinary “whip” antenna such as a car's is 1/4 of a wavelength. An antenna optimized to receive KKJZ's signal would have a length of 3.4 m/4= 0.85 m.


    r / 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.

    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.

    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.

    Homework Problems


    t / Problem 4.

    1. Many single-celled organisms propel themselves through water with long tails, which they wiggle back and forth. (The most obvious example is the sperm cell.) The frequency of the tail's vibration is typically about 10-15 Hz. To what range of periods does this range of frequencies correspond?

    2. (a) Pendulum 2 has a string twice as long as pendulum 1. If we define x as the distance traveled by the bob along a circle away from the bottom, how does the k of pendulum 2 compare with the k of pendulum 1? Give a numerical ratio. [Hint: the total force on the bob is the same if the angles away from the bottom are the same, but equal angles do not correspond to equal values of x.]

    (b) Based on your answer from part (a), how does the period of pendulum 2 compare with the period of pendulum 1? Give a numerical ratio.

    3. The following is a graph of the height of a water wave as a function of position, at a certain moment in time.


    Trace this graph onto another piece of paper, and then sketch below it the corresponding graphs that would be obtained if

    (a) the amplitude and frequency were doubled while the velocity remained the same;

    (b) the frequency and velocity were both doubled while the amplitude remained unchanged;

    (c) the wavelength and amplitude were reduced by a factor of three while the velocity was doubled.

    Explain all your answers. [Problem by Arnold Arons.]

    4. (a) The graph shows the height of a water wave pulse as a function of position. Draw a graph of height as a function of time for a specific point on the water. Assume the pulse is traveling to the right.

    (b) Repeat part a, but assume the pulse is traveling to the left.

    (c) Now assume the original graph was of height as a function of time, and draw a graph of height as a function of position, assuming the pulse is traveling to the right.

    (d) Repeat part c, but assume the pulse is traveling to the left.

    Explain all your answers. [Problem by Arnold Arons.]

    5. Suggest a quantitative experiment to look for any deviation from the principle of superposition for surface waves in water. Make it simple and practical.

    6. The musical note middle C has a frequency of 262 Hz. What are its period and wavelength?(answer check available at


    [1] Outer space is not a perfect vacuum, so it is possible for sounds waves to travel through it. However, if we want to create a sound wave, we typically do it by creating vibrations of a physical object, such as the sounding board of a guitar, the reed of a saxophone, or a speaker cone. The lower the density of the surrounding medium, the less efficiently the energy can be converted into sound and carried away. An isolated tuning fork, left to vibrate in interstellar space, would dissipate the energy of its vibration into internal heat at a rate many orders of magnitude greater than the rate of sound emission into the nearly perfect vacuum around it.


    Benjamin Crowell (Fullerton College). Conceptual Physics is copyrighted with a CC-BY-SA license.