wave is a perturbation that propagates in space and which can transport energy from one point to another. This perturbation consists of the variation of any physical quantity (for example pressure variation, temperature, electric field strength, position, etc.).

Many natural phenomena are described in terms of waves. The waves in the water are together the prototype of the wave and a rather particular case, as they are waves that mainly affect the surface of separation between two means (air and water), and therefore have less general characteristics of the waves traveling in a homogeneous medium (see transversal and longitudinal waves). The question of the nature of light is a typical example of a more difficult case to decide. Opposing theories in support of the corpuscular and wave-like nature of light have followed one another since antiquity, and found an original solution in contemporary physics, according to which both radiation and matter possess traits common to particles and waves when they are observed at a microscopic level (see waveband).

In the case of electromagnetic waves, due to the complexity of their interaction with matter, waves of the same physical nature can have very different effects depending on their frequency, varying from the radio waves used in telecommunications, to visible light, dangerous ionizing radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays.

The sound waves, as well as one of the physiological means of human communication, are actually a particular type of mechanical waves to which the whole section is dedicated, the sound and its perception.

The mechanical waves, moreover, concern many aspects of our daily life, from the most obvious on a small scale concerning oscillations and vibrations (see resonance phenomena in mechanical systems), to those less evident, but not less important on a large scale, such as the planetary waves, which occur in the fluids of the ocean and the atmosphere due to the rotation of the earth.

If the mode of propagation of a wave in a certain medium is known, the wave itself becomes a powerful tool for investigating the properties of that medium. For example, measuring the properties of seismic waves such as amplitude, the direction of oscillation, arrival times to the seismograph not only indicates where the epicenter of an earthquake is located but can give valuable information about the internal structure of the earth.

Most of the properties of matter at the molecular or atomic level are measured by irradiating a sample with waves (usually electromagnetic such as visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays, but also electron or neutron beams), and observing the sample reaction. The same principle underlies many modern diagnostic techniques in medicine: X-rays (X-ray) or ultrasound are used to “see” parts of the body that are not visible from the outside with normal visible light. The science of conservation and restoration of works of art also uses techniques based on the use of appropriate spectroscopies (fluorescence, absorption, transmission in the optical, infrared, ultraviolet, X bands).

Scientific investigations are nowadays a fundamental tool for law enforcement and based on a set of physico-chemical-biological investigation techniques they allow to acquire elements to reconstruct a crime scene that are often crucial for the investigation. Again the use of electromagnetic waves of various types to detect the presence of various types of traces, or to analyze them has now become common practice.

Often illuminating certain substances with waves of a certain type are highlighted aspects that otherwise remain hidden: in mineralogy it is common practice to use the light of Wood (ultraviolet) to verify the luminescence of minerals, and the police departments use similar methods to highlight traces otherwise invisible organic at the scene of a crime.

Measuring the change in direction of a light wave when it passes from the air to the glass tells us the value of the refractive index of the glass compared to that of the air (see the refraction section), but in general, the color or the transparency, reflectivity, and all the optical properties of a material are the results of the interaction (which can be very complex) of that material with electromagnetic waves.

Observing how a wave is reflected or transmitted at the interface between two different substances indicates directly how much the media is opposed to the transmission of energy by the wave itself (see the refraction section in one dimension), and allows us to optimize the ‘coupling between different media (such as a HiFi amplifier and microphone, or speakers), to get maximum efficiency

The waves allow us to study distant phenomena in space and time: astronomy and astrophysics base their observations on the study of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation from celestial bodies, from interstellar matter, and from deep space. The radiations studied occupy the whole spectrum of electromagnetic waves, and come from such distances that their origin can go back to remote times as the first moments of life in the universe. In addition, frequency shifts by Doppler effect give us information on the evolution of the universe.

Finally, the general theory of relativity predicts that gravitational waves consisting of a fluctuation in the spacetime curvature can be generated in certain cases (as in a binary system, or in the explosion of a supernova) and propagate in space-time. The waves carry energy and momentum. In this case we speak of radiant energy, or radiation. A wide range of applications allows the transport and use of energy by means of waves, from lasers to microwaves, to be more efficient. However, the first and simplest device to irradiate and direct the energy produced by a source is the antenna.

Transmitted energy can become information, and waves become the most effective and rapid means of communication. Waves lend themselves to transmitting information through a modulation of their properties. In fact, for example, communications in amplitude modulation (AM), frequency (FM), phase (PM), etc. are distinguished in radio communications. Sound waves are the natural means of vocal communication, while electromagnetic waves are the main means of communication at a distance of our planet.

Much of the science of telecommunications has been devoted to the problem of how to generate signals suitable for the transmission of different types of information, and transmit them to the maximum possible distance while minimizing noise in the transmission channel. A good deal of analogue and digital electronics deals with the generation, conditioning, transmission and reception of the signal.

Related keywords

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scroll to Top