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G E N E RA L P R O P E RT I E S O F WAV E S

Light travels as waves. Waves can be described by their amplitude, wavelength


and frequency. The speed of a wave can be calculated from its frequency and
wavelength.

WHAT ARE WAVES?

Waves are vibrations that transfer energy from place to place without
matter (solid, liquid or gas) being transferred. Think of a Mexican wave in a
football crowd: the wave moves around the stadium, while each spectator stays
in their seat only moving up then down when it's their turn.

Some waves must travel through a substance. The substance is known as the
medium and it can be solid, liquid or gas. Sound waves and seismic waves are
like this. They must travel through a medium, and it is the medium that vibrates
as the waves travel through.

Other waves do not need to travel through a substance. They may be able to
travel through a medium, but they do not have to. Visible light, infrared rays,
microwaves and other types of electromagnetic radiation are like this. They can
travel through empty space. Electrical and magnetic fields vibrate as the waves
travel.

LONGITUDINAL AND TRANSVERSE WAVES

You should be able to describe the characteristics of transverse and longitudinal


waves.

TRANSVERSE WAVES

In transverse waves, the oscillations (vibrations) are at right angles to the


direction of travel and energy transfer
Light and other types of electromagnetic radiation are transverse waves. All
types of electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed through a vacuum,
such as through space. Water waves and S waves (a type of seismic wave) are
also transverse waves.

LONGITUDINAL WAVES

In longitudinal waves, the oscillations are along the same direction as the
direction of travel and energy transfer.

Sound waves and waves in a stretched spring are longitudinal waves. P waves
(relatively fast moving longitudinal seismic waves that travel through liquids and
solids) are also longitudinal waves.

Longitudinal waves show area of compression and rarefaction. In the animation,


the areas of compression are where the parts of the spring are close together,
while the areas of rarefaction are where they are far apart.

AMPLITUDE, WAVELENGTH AND FREQUENCY

You should understand what is meant by the amplitude, wavelength and


frequency of a wave.

AMPLITUDE

As waves travel, they set up patterns of disturbance. The amplitude of a wave is


its maximum disturbance from its undisturbed position. Take care: the amplitude
is not the distance between the top and bottom of a wave.
AMPLITUDE AND WAVELENGTH
WAVELENGTH

The wavelength of a wave is the distance between a point on one wave and the
same point on the next wave. It is often easiest to measure this from the crest of
one wave to the crest of the next wave, but it doesn't matter where as long as it
is the same point in each wave.

FREQUENCY

The frequency of a wave is the number of waves produced by a source each


second. It is also the number of waves that pass a certain point each second.

The unit of frequency is the hertz (Hz). It is common for kilohertz (kHz),
megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz) to be used when waves have very high
frequencies. For example, most people cannot hear a high-pitched sound above
20 kHz, radio stations broadcast radio waves with frequencies of about 100 MHz,
while most wireless computer networks operate at 2.4 GHz.

WAVE SPEED

The speed of a wave is related to its frequency and wavelength, according to this
equation:

v=f

v is the wave speed in metres per second, m/s


f is the frequency in hertz, Hz
(lambda) is the wavelength in metres, m.

All waves obey this wave equation. For example, a wave with a frequency of 100
Hz and a wavelength of 2 m travels at 100 2 = 200 m/s.

REFRACTION AND DIFFRACTION

Waves can be refracted and diffracted. You do not need to know how this
happens for your examination, but you should know what refraction and
diffraction are.

REFRACTION

Sound waves and light waves change speed when they pass across the boundary
between two substances with different densities, such as air and glass. This
causes them to change direction and this effect is called refraction.

There is one special case you need to know. Refraction doesn't happen if the
waves cross the boundary at an angle of 90 (called the normal) - in that case
they carry straight on.
The refraction follows a regular pattern.
DIFFRACTION

When waves meet a gap in a barrier, they carry on through the gap. However,
the waves spread out to some extent into the area beyond the gap. This is called
diffraction.

The extent of the spreading depends on how the width of the gap compares to
the wavelength of the waves. Significant diffraction only happens when the
wavelength is of the same order of magnitude as the gap.

For example:

a gap similar to the wavelength causes a lot of spreading with no sharp


shadow, eg sound through a doorway
a gap much larger than the wavelength causes little spreading and a sharp
shadow, eg light through a doorway.

REFLECTION

Sound waves and light waves reflect from surfaces. When waves reflect, they
obey the law of reflection:

THE ANGLE OF INCIDENCE EQUALS THE ANGLE OF REFLECTION


The normal is a line drawn at right angles to the reflector
The angle of incidence is between the incident (incoming) ray and the
normal
The angle of reflection is between the reflected ray and the normal.

Smooth surfaces produce strong echoes when sound waves hit them, and they
can act as mirrors when light waves hit them. The waves are reflected uniformly
and light can form images.

The waves can:

appear to come from a point behind the mirror, for example a looking
glass
be focused to a point, for example sunlight reflected off a concave
telescope mirror.

Rough surfaces scatter sound and light in all directions. However, each tiny bit of
the surface still follows the rule that the angle of incidence equals the angle of
reflection.

RAY DIAGRAMS

You should be able to draw ray diagrams to explain reflection in a plane mirror (a
flat mirror).

CONSTRUCTING A RAY DIAGRAM

In a ray diagram, the mirror is drawn a straight line with thick hatchings to show
which side has the reflective coating. The light rays are drawn as solid straight
lines, each with an arrowhead to show the direction of travel. Light rays that
appear to come from behind the mirror are shown as dashed straight lines.

THE IMAGE IN A PLANE MIRROR IS VIRTUAL, UPRIGHT AND LATERALLY


INVERTED
Make sure that the incident rays (the solid lines) obey the law of reflection: the
angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Extend two lines behind the
mirror. They cross where the image appears to come from.

The image in a plane mirror is:

virtual (it cannot be touched or projected onto a screen)


upright (if you stand in front of a mirror, you look the right way up)
laterally inverted (if you stand in front of a mirror, your left side seems to
be on the right in the reflection).

seismic waves: Shock waves travelling through the Earth, usually caused by an
earthquake

microwaves: Electromagnetic radiation with a frequency between that of


visible light and radio waves.

electromagnetic radiation: Energy travelling as waves in the form of


changing electrical and magnetic fields

radio waves: Low frequency electromagnetic radiation used to transmit


information such as television and radio programmes.