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Physics LibreTexts

29A: Waves: Characteristics, Types, Energy

  • Page ID
    4121
  • Consider a long taut horizontal string of great length. Suppose one end is in the hand of a person and the other is fixed to an immobile object. Now suppose that the person moves her hand up and down. The person causes her hand, and her end of the string, to oscillate up and down. To discuss what happens, we, in our mind, consider the string to consist of a large number of very short string segments. It is important to keep in mind that the force of tension of a string segment exerted on any object, including another segment of the string, is directed away from the object along the string segment that is exerting the force. (The following discussion and diagrams are intentionally oversimplified. The discussion does correctly give the gross idea of how oscillations at one end of a taut string can cause a pattern to move along the length of the string despite the fact that the individual bits of string are essentially doing nothing more than moving up and down.

    The person is holding one end of the first segment. She first moves her hand upward.

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    This tilts the first segment so that the force of tension that it is exerting on the second segment has an upward component.

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    This, in turn, tilts the second segment so that its force of tension on the third segment now has an upward component. The process continues with the 3rd segment, the 4th segment, etc.

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    After reaching the top of the oscillation, the person starts moving her hand downward. She moves the left end of the first segment downward, but by this time, the first four segments have an upward velocity. Due to their inertia, they continue to move upward. The downward pull of the first segment on the left end of the second segment causes it to slow down, come to rest,

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    and eventually start moving downward. Inertia plays a huge role in wave propagation. “To propagate” means “to go” or “to travel.” Waves propagate through a medium.

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    Each very short segment of the string undergoes oscillatory motion like that of the hand, but for any given section, the motion is delayed relative to the motion of the neighboring segment that is closer to the hand. The net effect of all these string segments oscillating up and down, each with the same frequency but slightly out of synchronization with its nearest neighbor, is to create a disturbance in the string. Without the disturbance, the string would just remain on the original horizontal line. The disturbance moves along the length of the string, away from the hand. The disturbance is called a wave. An observer, looking at the string from the side sees crests and troughs of the disturbance, moving along the length of the string, away from the hand. Despite appearances, no material is moving along the length of the string, just a disturbance. The illusion that actual material is moving along the string can be explained by the timing with which the individual segments move up and down, each about its own equilibrium position, the position it was in before the person started making waves.

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