Lesson 1: The Nature of a Wave

Mingyu Li

What is a Wave?

So waves are everywhere. But what makes a wave a wave? What characteristics, properties, or behaviors are shared by all phenomenons which we typically characterize as being a wave? How can waves be described in a manner that allows us to understand their basic nature and qualities?
A wave can be described as a disturbance that travels through a medium from one location to another location. The repeating and periodic disturbance which moves through a medium from one location to another is referred to as a wave.
What is a Medium?
But what is meant by the word medium? A medium is a substance or material which carries the wave. You have perhaps heard of the phrase news media. The news media refers to the various institutions (newspaper offices, television stations, radio stations, etc.) within our society which carry the news from one location to another. The news moves through the media. The media doesn't make the news and the media isn't the same as the news. The news media is merely the thing that carries the news from its source to various locations. In a similar manner, a wave medium is the substance which carries a wave (or disturbance) from one location to another. The wave medium is not the wave and it doesn't make the wave; it merely carries or transports the wave from its source to other locations. In the case of our slinky wave, the medium through which the wave travels is the slinky coils. In the case of a water wave in the ocean, the medium through which the wave travels is the ocean water. In the case of a sound wave moving from the church choir to the pews, the medium through which the sound wave travels is the air in the room.
A Wave Transports Energy and Not Matter
When a wave is present in a medium (that is, when there is a disturbance moving through a medium), the individual particles of the medium are only temporarily displaced from their rest position. There is always a force acting upon the particles which restores them to their original position. In a water wave, each molecule of the water ultimately returns to its original position. A wave must involve the movement of a disturbance without the movement of matter. The particles of the medium (water molecules, slinky coils, stadium fans) simply vibrate about a fixed position as the pattern of the disturbance moves from one location to another location.
Waves are an energy transport phenomenon. As a disturbance moves through a medium from one particle to its adjacent particle, energy is being transported from one end of the medium to the other.
This characteristic of a wave as an energy transport phenomenon distinguishes waves from other types of phenomenon. Consider a common phenomenon observed at a softball game - the collision of a bat with a ball. A batter is able to transport energy from herself to the softball by means of a bat. The batter applies a force to the bat, thus imparting energy to the bat in the form of kinetic energy. The bat then carries this energy to the softball and transports the energy to the softball upon collision. In this example, a bat is used to transport energy from the player to the softball. However, unlike wave phenomena, this phenomenon involves the transport of matter. The bat must move from its starting location to the contact location in order to transport energy. In a wave phenomenon, energy can move from one location to another, yet the particles of matter in the medium return to their fixed position. A wave transports its energy without transporting matter.
Waves are seen to move through an ocean or lake; yet the water always returns to its rest position. Energy is transported through the medium, yet the water molecules are not transported. Proof of this is the fact that there is still water in the middle of the ocean. The water has not moved from the middle of the ocean to the shore. If we were to observe a gull or duck at rest on the water, it would merely bob up-and-down in a somewhat circular fashion as the disturbance moves through the water. The gull or duck always returns to its original position. The gull or duck is not transported to the shore because the water on which it rests is not transported to the shore. In a water wave, energy is transported without the transport of water.
In conclusion, a wave can be described as a disturbance which travels through a medium, transporting energy from one location (its source) to another location without transporting matter. Each individual particle of the medium is temporarily displaced and then returns to its original equilibrium positioned.