The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about waves in the most general scientific sense; a separate article focuses on ocean waves. See audience wave for the crowd phenomenon that is often just known as "the wave".

A wave is a disturbance that propagates. It carries energy. Apart from electromagnetic radiation, and probably gravitational radiation, which can travel through vacuum, waves exist in a medium (which on deformation is capable of producing elastic restoring forces) through which they travel and can transfer energy from one place to another without any of the particles of the medium being displaced permanently; i.e. there is no associated mass transport. Instead, any particular point oscillates around a fixed position.

Waves have crests (highs) and troughs (lows), either literally or in the graph of the varying quantity.



A medium that can carry a wave is classified as one or more of the following:

  • A linear medium if the amplitudes of different waves at any particular point in the medium can be added.
  • A bounded medium if it is finite in extent, otherwise unbounded.
  • A uniform medium if its physical properties are unchanged at different locations in space.
  • An isotropic medium if its physical properties are the same in different directions.

And then there is the problem of a wave (like light) that propagates without any medium, raising difficult questions about the relative motion of different observers....

Examples of waves

Characteristic properties

All waves have common behaviour under a number of standard situations. All waves can experience the following:

  • Reflection – the change of direction of waves, due to hitting a reflective surface.
  • Refraction – the change of direction of a wave due to them entering a new medium.
  • Diffraction – the spreading out of waves, for example when they travel through a small slit.
  • Interference – the addition of two waves that come in to contact with each other.
  • Dispersion – the splitting up of waves by frequency.
  • Rectilinear propagation – the movement of waves in straight lines.

Transverse and longitudinal waves

When an object bobs up and down on a ripple in a pond, it experiences an elliptical trajectory because ripples are not simple transverse sinusoidal waves.
When an object bobs up and down on a ripple in a pond, it experiences an elliptical trajectory because ripples are not simple transverse sinusoidal waves.

Transverse waves are those with vibrations perpendicular to the wave's direction of travel; examples include waves on a string and electromagnetic waves. Longitudinal waves are those with vibrations along the wave's direction of travel; examples include sound waves.

Ripples on the surface of a pond are actually a combination of transverse and longitudinal waves; therefore, the points on the surface follow elliptical paths.


Transverse waves can be polarized. Unpolarised waves can oscillate in any direction in the plane perpendicular to the direction of travel, while polarized waves oscillate in only one direction perpendicular to the line of travel.

Physical description of a wave


Waves can be described using a number of standard variables including: frequency, wavelength, amplitude and period. The amplitude of a wave is the measure of the magnitude of the maximum disturbance in the medium during one wave cycle, and is measured in units depending on the type of wave. For examples, waves on a string have an amplitude expressed as a distance (meters), sound waves as pressure (pascals) and electromagnetic waves as the amplitude of the electric field (volts/meter). The amplitude may be constant (in which case the wave is a c.w. or continuous wave) or may vary with time and/or position. The form of the variation of amplitude is called the envelope of the wave.

The period (T) is the time for one complete cycle for an oscillation of a wave. The frequency (F) is how many periods per unit time (for example one second) and is measured in hertz. These are related by:


When waves are expressed mathematically, the angular frequency (ω, radians/second) is often used; it is related to the frequency f by:

f=\frac{\omega}{2 \pi}.

Travelling waves

Waves that remain in one place are called standing waves - e.g. vibrations on a violin string. Waves that are moving are called travelling waves, and have a disturbance that varies both with time t and distance z. This can be expressed mathematically as:

y=A(z,t) \cos (\omega t - kz + \phi),\,

where A(z, t) is the amplitude envelope of the wave, k is the wave number and φ is the phase. The velocity v of this wave is given by:

v=\frac{\omega}{k}= \lambda f,

where λ is the wavelength of the wave.

The wave equation

In the most general sense, not all waves are sinusoidal. One example of a non-sinusoidal wave is a pulse that travels down a rope resting on the ground. In the most general case, any function of x, y, z, and t that is a non-trivial solution to the wave equation is a wave. The wave equation is a differential equation which describes a harmonic wave passing through a certain medium. The equation has different forms depending on how the wave is transmitted, and on what medium. A non-linear wave-equation can cause mass transport.

In one dimension the wave equation has the form

\frac{1}{c^2}\frac{\partial^2\phi}{\partial t^2}=\frac{\partial^2\phi}{\partial x^2}.

A general solution, given by d'Alembert's is

φ(x,t) = F(x - ct) + E(x + ct).

The Schrödinger equation describes the wave-like behaviour of particles in quantum mechanics. Solutions of this equation are wave functions which can be used to describe the probability density of a particle.

See also

Last updated: 05-08-2005 12:22:30
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04