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Transverse Waves

For transverse waves the displacement of the medium is perpendicular to the direction of
propagation of the wave. A ripple on a pond and a wave on a string are easily visualized
transverse waves.

Transverse waves cannot propagate in a gas or a liquid because there is no mechanism for
driving motion perpendicular to the propagation of the wave.
Longitudinal Waves
In longitudinal waves the displacement of the medium is parallel to the propagation of the wave.
A wave in a "slinky" is a good visualization. Sound waves in air are longitudinal waves.

Sound Waves in Air

A single-frequency sound wave traveling through air will cause a sinusoidal pressure variation in
the air. The air motion which accompanies the passage of the sound wave will be back and forth
in the direction of the propagation of the sound, a characteristic of longitudinal waves.

Physics professor Clint Sprott of the University of Wisconsin shows one way to visualize these
longitudinal pressure waves in his "Wonders of Physics" demonstration show. A loudspeaker is
driven by a tone generator to produce single frequency sounds in a pipe which is filled with
natural gas (methane). A series of holes is drilled in the pipe to release a small amount of gas.
Igniting the gas produces flames for which the height increases with the pressure in the pipe. The
pattern of the flames shows the pressure variation and can be used to roughly measure the
wavelength of the pressure wave in the pipe.

Low frequency High frequency

Shown below is more detail on the attachment of the loudspeaker to the pipe. The loudspeaker is
driven by the amplified output of a tunable oscillator.

A series of small holes were drilled at regular

intervals in the pipe. They appeared to be about 8
mm apart.

Ultrasonic Sound
The term "ultrasonic" applied to sound refers to anything above the frequencies of audible sound,
and nominally includes anything over 20,000 Hz. Frequencies used for medical diagnostic
ultrasound scans extend to 10 MHz and beyond.

Sounds in the range 20-100kHz are commonly used for communication and navigation by bats,
dolphins, and some other species. Much higher frequencies, in the range 1-20 MHz, are used for
medical ultrasound. Such sounds are produced by ultrasonic transducers. A wide variety of
medical diagnostic applications use both the echo time and the Doppler shift of the reflected
sounds to measure the distance to internal organs and structures and the speed of movement of
those structures. Typical is the echocardiogram, in which a moving image of the heart's action is
produced in video form with false colors to indicate the speed and direction of blood flow and
heart valve movements. Ultrasound imaging near the surface of the body is capable of
resolutions less than a millimeter. The resolution decreases with the depth of penetration since
lower frequencies must be used (the attenuation of the waves in tissue goes up with increasing
frequency.) The use of longer wavelengths implies lower resolution since the maximum
resolution of any imaging process is proportional to the wavelength of the imaging wave.

Bats and Ultrasound

Bats use ultrasonic sound for navigation. Their ability to catch flying insects while flying full
speed in pitch darkness is astounding. Their sophisticated echolocation permits them to
distinguish between a moth (supper) and a falling leaf.

About 800 species of bats grouped into 17 families. The ultrasonic signals utilized by these bats
fall into three main categories. 1. short clicks, 2. Frequency-swept pulses, and 3. constant
frequency pulses. There are two suborders, Megachiroptera and Microchiroptera. Megas use
short clicks, Micros use the other two. Tongue clicks produce click pairs separated by about
30ms, with 140-430 ms between pairs. (Sales and Pye, Ultrasonic Communication by Animals).
10-60 kHz in frequency swept clicks. One kind of bat, the verspertilionidae, have frequency
swept pulses 78 kHz to 39 kHz in 2.3 ms. Emits pulses 8 to 15 times a second, but can increase
to 150-200/s when there is a tricky maneuver to be made.

Cetacean Sound
Orcas produce a wide variety of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. They vary in frequency from 1
to 25 kHz. Individual pods of whales have their own distinctive dialect of calls, similar to
songbirds. Some such calls are known to be stable over a period of 10 years. Humpback whales
produce a variety of moans, snores, and groans that are repeated to form what we might call
songs. The frequency of these songs range from about 40 Hz to 5 kHz. Singing whales are
usually solitary males who exhibit it in a shallow smooth-bottomed area where sound propagates
well. They are interpreted as territorial and mating calls. Whales are also known to produce some
very intense low frequency sounds which they may use to stun or disorient small fish for prey.
Bottlenose dolphins produce sounds in the range 7 to 15 kHz which are continuously variable in
pitch. In addition, they produce short burst from 20 to 170 kHz, presumably for better

A dolphin's clicks come from small knobs near its blowhole. There are no vocal cords.

Ultrasonic Transducers
Ultrasonic sound can be produced by transducers which operate either by the piezoelectric effect
or the magnetostrictive effect. The magnetostrictive transducers can be used to produce high
intensity ultrasonic sound in the 20-40 kHz range for ultrasonic cleaning and other mechanical

Ultrasonic medical imaging typically uses much higher ultrasound frequencies in the range 1-20
MHz. Such ultrasound is produced by applying the output of an electronic oscillator to a thin
wafer of piezoelectric material such as lead zirconate titanate. The higher frequencies imply
shorter wavelengths and therefore higher resolution for the imaging process. The application of
the basic ideas of imaging (e.g., the Rayleigh criterion) suggests that the resolution of any
imaging process is limited by diffraction to a dimension similar to the wavelength of the wave
used for the imaging process.

The Rayleigh Criterion

The Rayleigh criterion is the generally accepted criterion for the minimum resolvable detail - the
imaging process is said to be diffraction-limited when the first diffraction minimum of the image
of one source point coincides with the maximum of another.

Single slit Circular aperture

Application to vision

If all parts of an imaging system are considered to be perfect, then the resolution of any imaging
process will be limited by diffraction. Considering the single slit expression above, then when
the wavelength is equal to the slit width, the angle for the first diffraction minimum is 90°. This
means that the wave is spread all the way to the plane of the slit and will not contain resolvable
information about the source of the wave. This leads to the simplified statement that the limit of
resolution of any imaging process is going to be on the order of the wavelength of the wave used
to image it.

What is 20/20 Vision?

Visual acuity is typically measured with the use of a standard eye chart called the Snellen chart.
It was devised by Dr. Hermann Snellen, a Dutch Ophthalmologist, in 1862. It was originally
used at a standard distance of 6 meters, which in U.S. common units is about 20 feet.

Where such units are used, normal vision came to be

characterized by the fraction 20/20, which corresponded
to being able to distinguish the letters on the fourth line up
from the bottom at a distance of 20 feet. The E on the
chart has a standard height of 88 mm and the other letters
are scaled accordingly. The basic scheme is that the letters
two rows down are half the size, and two rows up twice
the size. The nominal designations of visual acuity as a
number ratio could be based on which lines you could
read. If you could just resolve the letters two rows up
from the normal vision line at 20 feet, your acuity would
be labeled 20/40 and if you could resolve two lines down
it would be labeled 20/10.

Snellen Chart from Wikipedia

Another way of saying it is that if you vision is 20/40, you can just resolve at 20 feet what a
person with normal vision could resolve at 40 feet. A visual acuity of 20/200 with the best
possible correction with lenses is a nominal condition for being considered legally blind.

If the above describes the standard for normal vision, what are the factors which limit the
resolution of human vision? To examine whether diffraction is the limiting factor, it is interesting
to compare this standard of resolution with the limits imposed by diffraction. If the E on the chart
(20/200) is 88mm high, then the 20/20 line would have letters of height 8.8 mm.

The Rayleigh criterion for diffraction-limited vision for an iris diameter of 5 mm and a
wavelength of 500 nm is:
So 20/20 is about 12x the Rayleigh criterion. Ackerman reports that the data show:

This is another example of the remarkable nature of human senses: the most acute vision is
within about a factor of two of the physical limits imposed by diffraction!

According to a British standard quoted by Wikipedia, the minimum illumination for Snellen
charts should be 480 lux. If the illumination is increased, the iris will constrict more and the
diffraction at the smaller aperture would tend to diminish the acuity. However, the smaller
aperture also reduces the effects of any aberrations in the lens, which would act to increase visual
acuity. The conventional wisdom is that persons see better in bright light, suggesting that the
gain in overcoming aberrations is greater than the loss from diffraction.