Surface waves in water showing water ripples
Different types of wave with varying rectifications

In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a disturbance of a field in which a physical attribute oscillates repeatedly at each point or propagates from each point to neighboring points, or seems to move through space.

The waves most commonly studied in physics are mechanical and electromagnetic. A mechanical wave is a local deformation (strain) in some physical medium that propagates from particle to particle by creating local stresses that cause strain in neighboring particles too. For example, sound waves in air are variations of the local pressure that propagate by collisions between gas molecules. Other examples of mechanical waves are seismic waves, gravity waves, vortices, and shock waves. An electromagnetic wave consists of a combination of variable electric and magnetic fields, that propagates through space according to Maxwell's equations. Electromagnetic waves can travel through suitable dielectric media or through vacuum; examples include radio waves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays.

Other types of waves include gravitational waves, which are disturbances in a gravitational field that propagate according to general relativity; heat diffusion waves; plasma waves, that combine mechanical deformations and electromagnetic fields; reaction-diffusion waves, such as in the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction; and many more.

Mechanical and electromagnetic waves may often seem to travel through space; but, while they can carry energy,[1] momentum, and information through matter or empty space, they may do that without transferring any mass. In mathematics and electronics waves are studied as signals.[2] On the other hand, some waves do not appear to move at all, like standing waves (which are fundamental to music) and hydraulic jumps. Some, like the probability waves of quantum mechanics, may be completely static.

A physical wave is almost always confined to some finite region of space, called its domain. For example, the seismic waves generated by earthquakes are significant only in the interior and surface of the planet, so they can be ignored outside it. However, waves with infinite domain, that extend over the whole space, are commonly studied in mathematics, and are very valuable tools for understanding physical waves in finite domains.

A plane seems to travel in a definite direction, and has constant value over any plane perpendicular to that direction. Mathematically, the simplest waves are the sinusoidal ones. Complicated waves can often be described as the sum of many sinusoidal plane waves. A plane wave can be transverse, if its effect at each point is described by a vector that is perpendicular to the direction of propagation or energy transfer; or longitudinal, if the describing vectors are parallel to the direction of energy propagation. While mechanical waves can be both transverse and longitudinal, electromagnetic waves are transverse in free space.

Mathematical Description

Single waves

A wave can be described just like a field, namely as a function where is a position and is a time.

The value of is a point of space, specifically in the region where the wave is defined. In mathematical terms, it is usually a vector in the Cartesian three-dimensional space . However, in many casesone can ignore one or two dimensions, and let be a point of the Cartesian plane . This is the case, for example, when studying vibrations of a drum skin). One may even restrict to a point of the Cartesian line — that is, the set of real numbers. This is the case, for example, when studying vibrations in a violin string or recorder. The time , on the other hand, is always assumed to be a scalar; that is, a real number.

The value of can be any physical quantity of interest assigned to the point that may vary with time. For example, if represents the vibrations inside an elastic solid, the value of is usually a vector that gives the current displacement from of the material particles that would be at the point in the absence of vibration. For an electromagnetic wave, the value of can be the electric field vector , or the magnetic field vector , or any related quantity, such as the Poynting vector . In fluid dynamics, the value of could be the velocity vector of the fluid at the point , or any scalar property like pressure, temperature, or density. In a chemical reaction, could be the concentration of some substance in the neighborhood of point of the reaction medium.

For any dimension (1, 2, or 3), the wave's domain is then a subset of , such that the function value is defined for any point in . For example, when describing the motion of a drum skin, one can consider to be a disk (circle) on the plane with center at the origin , and let be the vertical displacement of the skin at the point of of and at time .

Wave families

Sometimes one is interested in a single specific wave, like how the Earth vibrated after the 1929 Murchison earthquake. More often, however, one needs to understand large set of possible waves; like all the ways that a drum skin can vibrate after being struck once with a drumstick, or all the possible radar echos one could get from an airplane that may be approaching an airport.

In some of those situations, one may describe such a family of waves by a function that depends on certain parameters , besides and . Then one can obtain different waves — that is, different functions of and — by choosing different values for those parameters.

Sound pressure wave in an half-open pipe playing the 7th harmonic of the fundamental (n = 4).

For example, the sound pressure inside a recorder that is playing a "pure" note is typically a standing wave, that can be written as

The parameter defines the amplitude of the wave (that is, the maximum sound pressure in the bore, which is related to the loudness of the note); is the speed of sound; is the length of the bore; and is a positive integer (1,2,3,...) that specifies the number of nodes in the standing wave. (The position should be masured from the mouthpiece, and the time from any moment at which the pressure at the mouthpiece is maximum. The quantity is the wavelength of the emitted note, and is its frequency.) Many general properties of these waves can be inferred from this general equation, without choosing specific values for the parameters.

As another example, it may be that the vibrations of a drum skin after a single strike depend only on the distance from the center of the skin to the strike point, and on the strength of the strike. Then the vibration for all possible strikes can be described by a function .

Sometimes the family of waves of interest has infinitely many parameters. For example, one may want to describe what happens to the temperature in a metal bar when it is initially heated at various temperatures at different points along its length, and then allowed to cool by itself in vacuum. In that case, instead of a scalar or vector, the parameter would have to be a function such that is the initial temperature at each point of the bar. Then the temperatures at later times can be expressed by a function that depends on the function (that is, a functional operator), so that the temperature at a later time is

Differential wave equations

Another way to describe and study a family of waves is to give a mathematical equation that, instead of explictly giving the value of , only constrains how those values can change with time. Then the family of waves in question consists of all functions that satisfy those constraints — that is, all solutions of the equation.

This approach is extremely important in physics, because the constraints usually are a consequence of the physical processes that cause the wave to evolve. For example, if is the temperature inside a block of some homogeneous and isotropic solid material, its evolution is constrained by the partial differential equation

where is the heat that is being generated per unit of volume and time in the neighborhood of at time (for example, by chemical reactions happening there); are the Cartesian coordinates of the point ; is the (first) derivative of with respect to ; and is the second derivative of relative to . (The simbol "" is meant to signify that, in the derivative with respect to some variable, all other variables must be considered fixed.)

This equation can be derived from the laws of physics that govern the diffusion of heat in solid media. For that reason, it is called the heat equation in mathematics, even though it applies to many other physical quantities besides temperatures.

For another example, we can describe all possible sounds echoing within a container of gas by a function that gives the pressure at a point and time within that container. If the gas was initially at uniform temperature and composition, the evolution of is constrained by the formula

Here is some extra compression force that is being applied to the gas near by some external process, such as a loudspeaker or piston] right next to .

This same differential equation describes the behavior of mechanical vibrations and electromagnetic fields in a homogeneous isotropic non-conducting solid. Note that this equation differs from that of heat flow only in that the left-hand side is , the second derivative of with respect to time, rather than the first derivative . Yet this small change makes a huge difference on the set of solutions . This diferential equation is called "the" wave equation in mathematics, even though it describes only one very special kind of waves.

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