Wave As You Go By

A winter day, a bit nippy and windy enough to raise scattered whitecaps on the park lake. Apparently neither the geese nor Mr Richard Feder (of Fort Lee, NJ) enjoy that — the geese are standing on the shore and he’s huddled down on a bench as I pass. “Hey Moire, I gotta question.”

“Mr Feder. I’m trying to keep warm. If you want answers you’ll have to jog along.”

“Oh, alright <oof>. OK, watching those waves got me thinking. They keep going because the wind pushes on ’em, right? So what pushes on sound waves and light waves? If something pushes hard enough on a sound wave does it speed up enough to be a light wave?”

“So many questions. Are you sure you’ve got enough wind?”

“Ha, ha. I’ve been working out a little.”

“We’ll see. Well, first, nothing needs to push on a wave once it’s started. They travel on their own momentum.”

“Then why do these waves die away when the wind stops?”

“You’ve got two things going on there, on different time scales. When the wind stops blowing it stops making new waves. Actually, winds rarely stop all at once, they taper off. It looks like waves are dying away but really you just see smaller and smaller waves. Inside a single wave, though, friction takes its toll.”

“Friction? Waves rub against each other? That’s not what’s going on here — they keep their distance unless different groups run crosswise and then they all just keep going.”

Turbulence in a water wave

“Not friction between waves, friction within a wave. There’s a lot of turbulence inside a water wave — the wind piles up surface molecules on one side, gravity and surface tension move the other side’s molecules downward, and the ones inside are pulled in every direction. All that helter-skelter motion randomizes the wave’s momentum and converts the wave’s energy to heat. When that’s gone, the wave’s gone.”

“So how’s sound different from that?”

“Lots of ways. To begin with, wind and gravity move molecules up and down perpendicular to the wave’s direction of travel. Sound waves aren’t affected by gravity. They move molecules back and forth parallel to the wave’s direction.”

“But they still die out, right? Turn to heat and all that?”

“Absolutely, Mr Feder. How fast a wave dies out depends on what heat-conversion processes are in play. In a water wave gravity and surface tension work together to smooth things out. Neither’s active in sound waves. The only way a sound wave can lose energy is through random collisions between molecules that aren’t in sync with the wave. Could be the wave hits a mushy object or maybe it just gets buried in other waves.”

“Like at a football game, when everyone’s shouting but all you hear is the roar.”

“Pretty good example, Mr Feder.”

“So how’s a light wave different?”

“Light waves don’t even need molecules. The electromagnetic field near a particle is the net effect of all the attractions and repulsions it feels from all other charged particles everywhere in the Universe. When some charged particle somewhere moves, that changes the field. The change is transmitted throughout the field as a wave traveling at the speed of light.”

“What makes it die away?”

“It doesn’t. On a dark, clear night your eyes can see stars a quintillion miles away. Astronomers with their instruments can detect objects millions of times further away.”

“No smoothing out? How come?”

“That’s a very deep question, Mr Feder, one that really bothered Einstein. You’d think a photon’s wave would get fainter the further it spreads. In fact, it delivers all its energy to the first charged particle it can interact with, no matter how far it had traveled. Weird, huh?”

“Weird, all right. So we got these three very different things — they start different, they push different, they got different speeds, they die different, but we call them all waves. Why’s that?”

“They’re all waves because they’re all patterns that transmit energy and momentum across space. Physicists have found general rules that apply to the patterns, whatever the wave type. Equations that work for one kind work for many others, too.”

Gravity waves?”

“And gravitational waves.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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