wave motion

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Wave motion

The process by which a disturbance at one point in space is propagated to another point more remote from the source with no net transport of the material of the medium itself. For example, sound is a form of wave motion; wind is not. Wave motion can occur only in a medium in which energy can be stored in both kinetic and potential form. In a mechanical medium, kinetic energy results from inertia and is stored in the velocity of the molecules, while potential energy results from elasticity and is stored in the displacement of the molecules.


In a free traveling wave (as distinguished from a stationary or standing wave) one part of the medium disturbs an adjacent part, thereby imparting energy to it. This portion of the medium, in turn, disturbs another part, thereby causing a flow of energy in a given direction away from the source. More technically, wave propagation is the result of kinetic energy at one point being transferred into potential energy at an adjacent point, and vice versa. The rate of travel of the disturbance, or velocity of propagation, is determined by the constants of the medium. A stationary wave is the combination of two waves of the same frequency and strength traveling in opposite directions so that no net transfer of energy away from the source takes place. A standing wave is the same but with the returning wave (toward the source) being of lesser intensity than the outwardly traveling wave so that a net transfer of energy away from the source does take place.

Wave motion can occur in a vacuum (electromagnetic waves), in gases (sound waves), in liquids (hydrodynamic waves), and in solids (vibration waves). Electromagnetic waves can also travel in gases, liquids, and solids provided that the electrical conductivity of the medium is not perfect or that the imaginary part of the dielectric constant is not infinitely great. By current usage, elastic waves propagated in gases, liquids, and solids, regardless of whether one can hear them or not, are called acoustic waves.

Fundamental relations

A wave is commonly referred to in terms of either its wavelength or its frequency. In any type of wave motion, these two quantities are related to a third quantity, velocity of propagation, by the simple relation fλ = c, where f = frequency, λ = wavelength, and c = velocity of propagation. The period T is the reciprocal of the frequency, and the amplitude A is the maximum magnitude taken on by the variable of the wave at a given point in space. It is a basic property of wave motion that the frequency of a wave remains constant under all circumstances except for a relative motion between the source of the wave and the observer. The velocity of propagation is dependent on the properties of the medium (and, sometimes, also on the frequency) and the wavelength will vary with the velocity in accordance with the equation above.

Electromagnetic waves

The media in which electromagnetic waves travel possess no elasticity or inertia, but rather the ability to store energy in the electric and magnetic fields. J. C. Maxwell recognized in about 1863 that the basic equations governing these fields could be combined to yield an equation resembling the wave equation for mechanical wave motion. Thus he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves which had not been suspected theretofore. Later, electromagnetic waves proved to be identical with light waves. See Electromagnetic radiation, Light, Maxwell's equations, Wave equation

Motion in fluids

Wave motion within a fluid is generated by successive compression and expansion of adjacent volume elements. Because compression and expansion of an ordinary fluid can only proceed along the direction of propagation of the disturbance, waves within a fluid are mostly longitudinal waves.

Waves in a fluid can be classified as compression waves and expansion waves, according to whether the disturbance is a compression or an expansion. They can further be classified according to the amplitude of the disturbance and the chemical nature of the fluid. For example, waves of small amplitude are called acoustic (or sound) waves; compression waves propagating in chemically inert fluids are called shock waves; waves propagating in the Earth are seismic waves; and waves of large amplitude generated by rapid chemical reactions in explosive fluids are called detonation waves and can propagate much faster than sound waves. Waves in an electrically conducting fluid in the presence of strong magnetic fields are called magnetohydrodynamic waves. See Magnetohydrodynamics, Shock wave, Sound

Motion in liquids

Disturbances propagated at a gas-liquid interface are primarily dependent upon the gravitational fluid property (surface tension and viscosity being of secondary importance). Wave motions which occur in confined fluids (either liquid or gaseous) are primarily dependent upon the elastic property of the medium.

Oscillatory waves may be generated in a rectangular channel by a simple harmonic translation of a vertical wall forming one end of the flume. A standing wave can be considered to be composed of two equal oscillatory wave trains traveling in opposite directions.

A solitary wave consists of a single crest above the original liquid surface which is neither preceded nor followed by another elevation or depression of the surface. Such a wave is generated by the translation of a vertical wall starting from an initial position at rest and coming to rest again some distance downstream. In practice, solitary waves are generated by a motion of barges in narrow waterways or by a sudden change in the rate of inflow into a river; they are therefore related to a form of flood wave.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

wave motion

[′wāv ‚mō·shən]
The process by which a disturbance at one point is propagated to another point more remote from the source with no net transport of the material of the medium itself; examples include the motion of electromagnetic waves, sound waves, hydrodynamic waves in liquids, and vibration waves in solids. Also known as propagation; wave propagation.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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