Wave motion transfers energy from one point to another, usually without permanent displacement of the particles of the medium.
Vibrations and waves are extremely important phenomena in physics. In nature, oscillations are found everywhere. From the jiggling of atoms to the large oscillations of sea waves, we find examples of vibrations in almost every physical system. In physics a wave can be thought of as a disturbance or oscillation that travels through space-time, accompanied by a transfer of energy. Wave motion transfers energy from one point to another, often with no permanent displacement of the particles of the medium —that is, with little or no associated mass transport. They consist, instead, of oscillations or vibrations around almost fixed locations.
The emphasis of the last point highlights an important misconception of waves. Waves transfer energy not mass. An easy way to see this is to imagine a floating ball a few yards out to sea. As the waves propagate (i.e., travel) towards the shore, the ball will not come towards the shore. It may come to shore eventually due to the tides, current or wind, but the waves themselves will not carry the ball with them. A wave only moves mass perpendicular to the direction of propagation—in this case up and down, as illustrated in the figure below:
Wave motion: The point along the axis is analogous to the floating ball at sea. We notice that while it moves up and down it does not move in the direction of the wave’s propagation.
A wave can be transverse or longitudinal depending on the direction of its oscillation. Transverse waves occur when a disturbance causes oscillations perpendicular (at right angles) to the propagation (the direction of energy transfer). Longitudinal waves occur when the oscillations are parallel to the direction of propagation. While mechanical waves can be both transverse and longitudinal, all electromagnetic waves are transverse. Sound, for example, is a longitudinal wave.
The description of waves is closely related to their physical origin for each specific instance of a wave process. For example, acoustics is distinguished from optics in that sound waves are related to a mechanical rather than an electromagnetic (light) wave transfer caused by vibration. Therefore, concepts such as mass, momentum, inertia or elasticity become crucial in describing acoustic (as distinct from optic) wave processes. This difference in origin introduces certain wave characteristics particular to the properties of the medium involved. In this chapter we will closely examine the difference between longitudinal and transverse waves along with some of the properties they possess. We will also learn how waves are fundamental in describing motion of many applicable physical systems.
The Wave Equation: A brief introduction to the wave equation, discussing wave velocity, frequency, wavelength, and period.