FHSST Physics/Waves/Types

The Free High School Science Texts: A Textbook for High School Students Studying Physics.
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Waves and Wavelike Motion
Definition - Types of Waves - Properties of Waves - Practical Applications: Sound Waves - Practical Applications: Electromagnetic Waves - Equations and Quantities

Two Types of WavesEdit

We agreed that a wave was a moving set of peaks and troughs and we used water as an example. Moving peaks and troughs, with all the characteristics we described, in any medium constitute a wave. It is possible to have waves where the peaks and troughs are perpendicular to the direction of motion, like in the case of water waves. These waves are called transverse waves.

There are two additional types of waves. The first is called longitudinal waves and have the peaks and troughs in the same direction as the wave is moving. The question is how do we construct such a wave?

An example of a longitudinal wave is pressure waves moving through a gas. The peaks in this wave are places where the pressure reaches a peak and the troughs are places where the pressure is a minimum.

In the picture below we show the random placement of the gas molecules in a tube. The piston at the end moves into the tube with a repetitive motion. Before the first piston stroke the pressure is the same throughout the tube.


When the piston moves in it compresses the gas molecules together at the end of the tube. If the piston stopped moving the gas molecules would all bang into each other and the pressure would increase in the tube.


When the piston moves out again before the molecules have time to bang around then the increase in pressure moves down the tube like a pulse (single peak and trough, a single wave cycle).


As this repeats we get waves of increased and decreased pressure moving down the tubes. We can describe these pulses of increased pressure (peaks in the pressure) and decreased pressure (troughs of pressure) by a sine or cosine graph.



The second additional type of wave is the torsional wave. The peaks and troughs rotate around the direction of motion. In simpler terms, a "twisting motion" is transmitted through the medium. Of the two wave types, this is the hardest one to describe and visualize.

There are a number of examples of each type of wave. Not all can be seen with the naked eye but all can be detected.