Parameters of Waves

The maximum displacement of the medium in either direction is the amplitude of the wave. The distance between successive crests or successive troughs (corresponding to maximum displacements in the same direction) is the wavelength of the wave. The frequency of the wave is equal to the number of crests (or troughs) that pass a given fixed point per unit of time. Closely related to the frequency is the period of the wave, which is the time lapse between the passage of successive crests (or troughs). The frequency of a wave is the inverse of the period.

One full wavelength of a wave represents one complete cycle, that is, one complete vibration in each direction. The various parts of a cycle are described by the phase of the wave; all waves are referenced to an imaginary synchronous motion in a circle; thus the phase is measured in angular degrees, one complete cycle being 360°. Two waves whose corresponding parts occur at the same time are said to be in phase. If the two waves are at different parts of their cycles, they are out of phase. Waves out of phase by 180° are in phase opposition. The various phase relationships between combining waves determines the type of interference that takes place.

The speed of a wave is determined by its wavelength λ and its frequency ν, according to the equation v = λν, where v is the speed, or velocity. Since frequency is inversely related to the period T, this equation also takes the form v = λ/ T. The speed of a wave tells how quickly the energy it carries is being transferred. It is important to note that the speed is that of the wave itself and not of the medium through which it is traveling. The medium itself does not move except to oscillate as the wave passes.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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