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Interference
January 2003Number 47
 F actsheetP hysics
1
 
What is interference?
When two waves of a similar type meet they
interfere
with each other. Theintensity at that point is the sum of the intensities of the two waves at thatpoint. This is called the
principle of superposition
of waves. It worksfor all types of waves and for two waves or more.Adding waves of different wavelengths and amplitudes results in complexwaveforms. However, there are some interesting effects when two waveswith the
same
wavelength overlap.
Constructive and destructive interference
Imagine, for example, a situation where the same pure musical note is fedto two loudspeakers a short distance apart and facing in the same direction.You might expect that the sound you would hear in front of the speakerswould be louder than if there were only one speaker. To a certain extent thisis true – but it is only part of the story. If you move around in the area infront of the speakers then you would notice that in some places the soundis louder, in others it is quieter. These are
interference effects
. The diagramshows what is happening. The positions of the loudspeakers are labelled1 and 2 and the diagram shows where maxima (positions where the soundis loudest) and minima (positions where the sound is quietest) occur.Two waves out of phase interfereto cancel one another outTwo waves in phase interfere toproduce a bigger wavemaximumminimumcentral maximumminimummaximumloudspeaker1loudspeaker 2At every position in front of the speakers, waves are arriving from bothsources. In some places the waves will be in phase with one another; thatis, the peaks of both waves arrive at exactly the same point at the same time.In these places, the principle of superposition predicts that the resultantwave has double the amplitude – and you would hear a louder sound. Thisis called
constructive interference
– each wave interferes with (or issuperposed upon) the other to produce a bigger wave. However, there willbe other points nearby where the peak of the wave arriving from one speakercoincides exactly with the trough of the wave arriving from the other speaker.If the two waves are of equal amplitude at this point, then they interfere withone another to produce a wave of zero amplitude – cancelling one another out.At this point you would expect to hear absolute silence! (In practice, echoesfrom the surrounding surfaces mean it is unlikely it would actually be silent– but the sound heard at this point would certainly be much quieter.) Thisis known as
destructive interference
– and is the more surprising effect of the principle of superposition. Remember that it is not quiet at this positionbecause
no
wave is arriving – but because TWO waves are arriving, out of phase, and each one is cancelling out the other. If one of the speakers wereto be turned off, the sound at this point would get louder.This Factsheet will expain:what is meant by interferenceinterference patternsdouble slit interferenceBefore working through this Factsheet you should make sure you understandthe basic ideas in waves (Factsheet 17)
Constructive interference
occurs when two waves are in phase - their peaks coincideamplitude of resulting wave is sum of original amplitudes
 Destructive interference
occurs when two waves are totally out of phase/phase difference of 180
o
=
π 
radians)amplitude of resulting wave is the difference of original amplitudes- which will be zero if the original waves had the same amplitude
Interference occurs for all types of wave – so it is possible to observe exactlythe same effect with two light sources – as long as they are both
coherent
and of similar amplitudes. (Coherent waves have the same frequency and aconstant phase relationship.) In this case, the effect of constructiveinterference would be brighter light and the effect of destructive interferencewould be no light – or darkness. It is even harder to believe that an area isin darkness because two lights are shining on it simultaneously – but justbecause something is surprising doesn’t make it untrue! In this case,switching or blocking one of the light sources off would make it light againat that point!Interference patterns of this kind in microwaves are the reason that the foodin a microwave oven is placed on a rotating turntable. If it were kept still, therewould be hot spots and cold spots in the food – in most foodstuffs, theconduction is too slow to spread the heat around evenly in the cooking time.In radio waves, interference patterns are set up when the same signal issimultaneously transmitted from two aerials at a distance apart. If you had amoveable receiver (such as a car radio) and were tuned into this frequency asyou travelled across the region where both of these signals overlapped, thenyou would experience the received signal getting weaker and stronger – and theradio getting quieter and louder - as you moved through the interference pattern.
 
Interference
Physics Factsheet
2
Demonstrating intereference patterns
The effect can be clearly demonstrated in a ripple tank. Two coherent wavesources are produced by attaching two dippers to a single beam suspended byrubber bands above the water in the ripple tank. The beam is vibrated by amotor with an eccentric mass (i.e. a mass which is not mounted at its centre)so that it wobbles as the motor spins. The height is adjusted so that bothdippers touch the surface of the water producing coherent waves from pointsseveral centimeters apart. The resulting wave pattern is shown in thephotograph below. The pattern of constructive and destructive interference,as waves coincide in phase in some places and out of phase in others, producesbands of interference that appear to fan out from the space between the sources.
Double slit interference
To demonstrate the same effect as described above using light waves requiresa little more sophistication. In practice, the only way to ensure two coherentwave sources is to use a single light source of just one wavelength – bestachieved by using a laser – and to split that using an arrangement known as
Young’s slits
(after Thomas Young, who designed this experiment in 1801to measure the wavelength of light). This is a slide with two narrow, parallelslits very close together. The laser beam falls onto both slits and passesthrough each, spreading out slightly by diffraction as it does so. The lightwaves emerging from each slit act as two separate beams of light and (sincethey come from the same source) these two waves have the same wavelengthand leave the slits in phase with one another – they are coherent
.
A screen is placed some distance from the laser (usually several metresaway – so the room needs to be dark if they are to be seen clearly) andinterference bands (or
fringes
) can be seen. They appear as alternate areasof light and darkness, where the two waves interfere with one anotherconstructively and destructively. The diagram below shows the relationshipbetween the various quantities in this arrangement.D
a
s
1
s
2
lasern
λ 
(n+1)
λ 
xscreenWhere the two waves have travelled the same distance from both slitsto the screen (i.e. right in the middle of the interference pattern) thenthey will be in phase and there will be a bright fringe – this centralmaximum is the brightest of all the fringes.Moving to either side of the central fringe, there will be another brightfringe at the point where the wave from one of the slits is once again inphase with the wave from the other slit. This occurs when the wavefrom the ‘further’ of the two slits has travelled exactly one wavelengthmore than the other – we say that the
path difference
is equal to onewavelength.There will be further bright fringes at each position on the screen wherethe path difference is exactly equal to two wavelengths, threewavelengths and so on. The bright fringes will appear to be equallyspaced on the screen.In between these bright fringes will be dark fringes of destructiveinterference. At each of these positions, the path difference will beexactly equal to ½ a wavelength, 1½ wavelengths, 2½ wavelengths andso on – making the waves exactly 180
o
out 
of phase.The equation: describes this relationshipwhere:
λ 
=wavelength
a
=separation of the slits(distance between the centres of the two slits)
 x
=distance between successive fringes
 D
=distance from the slits to the screen
λ 
 
=
ax D(all measurements in metres)
Questions
1.(a)Explain what is meant by superposition of waves.[2](b)Distinguish between constructive and destructive interference.[4](c)State two conditions necessary for sources of waves to be coherent.[2](d)Why is it necessary to have two coherent sources to produce aninterference pattern.[2]2(a)A student sets up two loudspeakers to perform an experiment onthe interference of sound. The loudspeakers produce sound waveswith the same frequency, which is known to be below 1kHz. Shefinds a point of destructive interference, i.e. a point where the noiselevel is very low, at 3m from one speaker and 2m from the other.Determine all possible frequencies at which the speakers could havebeen oscillating. Take the speed of sound in air as 340ms
-1
.[4](b)She now stands midway between a different pair of speakers, whichare oscillating at 400 Hz, and 401Hz respectively. The sound wavesproduced by these speakers have equal amplitudes. Describe andexplain what she hears.[4]3.Microwaves with a wavelength of 6cm are directed towards a metal plate.The plate is 20cm wide and has two parallel slits in it. An interferencepattern is formed on the far side of the plate.20 cm30 cmemitter(a)A microwave detector is placed 30 cm directly in front of one of theslits. The detector gives a zero reading.(i)Comment on the phase difference between the waves from eachslit at this point and use this to explain why the detector gavea reading of zero.[2](ii)Calculate the distance between the two slits.[4](b)What would happen to the interference pattern if the plate wererotated through an angle of 90
o
? Explain your answer.[3]Detector

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