Instructional Materials in Physics and Astronomy



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From Study Modules for Calculus-Based General Physics
Copyright © 1975 CBP Workshop, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Reproduction rights granted.


"For many people -- perhaps for most -- the word "wave" conjures up a picture of an ocean, with the rollers sweeping onto the beach from the open sea. If you have stood and watched this phenomenon, you may have felt that for all its grandeur it contains an element of anticlimax. You see the crests racing in, you get a sense of the massive assault by the water on the land -- and indeed the waves can do great damage, which means that they are carriers of energy -- but yet when it is all over, when the wave has reared and broken, the water is scarcely any further up the beach than it was before. That onward rush was not to any significant extent a bodily motion of the water. The long waves of the open sea (known as the swell) travel fast and far. Waves reaching the California coast have been traced to origins in South Pacific storms more than 7000 miles away, and have traversed this distance at a speed of 40 mph or more. Clearly the sea itself has not traveled in this spectacular way; it has simply played the role of the agent by which a certain effect is transmitted. And here we see the essential feature of what is called wave motion. A condition of some kind is transmitted from one place to another by means of a medium, but the medium itself is not transported. A local effect can be linked to a distant cause, and there is a time lag between cause and effect that depends on the properties of the medium and finds its expression in the velocity of the wave. All material media -- solids, liquids, and gases -- can carry energy and information by means of waves ....

Although waves on water are the most familiar type of wave, they are also among the most complicated to analyze in terms of underlying physical processes. We shall, therefore, not have very much to say about them. Instead, we shall turn to our old standby -- the stretched string -- about which we have learned a good deal that can now be applied to the present discussion.

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