Introduction to Waves

What are light and sound made of?

The anatomy of a wave

Transverse and longitudinal waves Light and sound are waves. But what does that mean? A wave is something which transfers energy from one place to another by causing an oscillating disturbance. Just like ripples on a pond.

x x x x x

Wavelength (O) is the distance from peak to peak. O Amplitude (A) is the size of the disturbance. It is the distance from the middle (equilibrium) position to the highest point on the wave. Frequency (f) is how many waves pass a single point in one second. Wave Speed (v) is how fast the wave is travelling. Time Period (T) is the length of time it takes for one oscillation.

Introduction to Waves
Transverse and Longitudinal Waves
All waves are caused by a disturbance. Depending on the direction of this disturbance, the  wave can have different effects and properties.  

(a) Longitudinal waves oscillate in the same direction as they travel (Sound).   (b) Transverse waves oscillate perpendicular to the direction of travel (Light).  

Sound  is  a  longitudinal  wave.  It  passes  through  a  medium  (such  as  air)  because  of  compression  and  rarefaction.  This  is  like  the  squashing  and  Frequency Ÿ pitch stretching of the spring above.   Amplitude Ÿ volume There  must  be  a  medium  to  vibrate  or  sound  cannot  pass  through. Sound cannot travel through a vacuum.  

Light is a transverse wave. It is caused by a changing electric and magnetic field, so is often  called an electromagnetic wave.   Frequency Ÿ colour It  does  not  need  a  medium  –  light  is  able  to  pass  through  a  Amplitude Ÿ intensity vacuum (hence we can see The Sun, but not hear it!).  

Mechanical Waves
These  are  disturbances  in  materials,  and  can  be  either  transverse  or  longitudinal.  Earthquakes  cause  both  types  of  waves  to  pass  through  the  Earth,  carrying  energy  to  different places.