Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....


So far we have tacitly assumed that wave energy remains as wave energy, and is not converted to any other form. If this was true, then the world would become more and more full of sound waves, which could never escape into the vacuum of outer space. In reality, any mechanical wave consists of a traveling pattern of vibrations of some physical medium, and vibrations of matter always produce heat, as when you bend a coathangar back and forth and it becomes hot. We can thus expect that in mechanical waves such as water waves, sound waves, or waves on a string, the wave energy will gradually be converted into heat. This is referred to as absorption.

(g) A pulse traveling through a highly absorptive medium.

The wave suffers a decrease in amplitude, as shown in figure (g). The decrease in amplitude amounts to the same fractional change for each unit of distance covered. For example, if a wave decreases from amplitude 2 to amplitude 1 over a distance of 1 meter, then after traveling another meter it will have an amplitude of 1/2. That is, the reduction in amplitude is exponential. This can be proven as follows. By the principle of superposition, we know that a wave of amplitude 2 must behave like the superposition of two identical waves of amplitude 1. If a single amplitude-1 wave would die down to amplitude 1/2 over a certain distance, then two amplitude- 1 waves superposed on top of one another to make amplitude 1+1=2 must die down to amplitude 1/2+1/2=1 over the same distance.

Self-Check As a wave undergoes absorption, it loses energy. Does this mean that it slows down?
Answer No. A material object that loses kinetic energy slows down, but a wave is not a material object. The velocity of a wave ordinarily only depends on the medium, not on the amplitude. The speed of soft sound, for example, is the same as the speed of loud sound.

In many cases, this frictional heating effect is quite weak. Sound waves in air, for instance, dissipate into heat extremely slowly, and the sound of church music in a cathedral may reverberate for as much as 3 or 4 seconds before it becomes inaudible. During this time it has traveled over a kilometer! Even this very gradual dissipation of energy occurs mostly as heating of the church's walls and by the leaking of sound to the outside (where it will eventually end up as heat). Under the right conditions (humid air and low frequency), a sound wave in a straight pipe could theoretically travel hundreds of kilometers before being noticeable attenuated.

In general, the absorption of mechanical waves depends a great deal on the chemical composition and microscopic structure of the medium. Ripples on the surface of antifreeze, for instance, die out extremely rapidly compared to ripples on water. For sound waves and surface waves in liquids and gases, what matters is the viscosity of the substance, i.e. whether it flows easily like water or mercury or more sluggishly like molasses or antifreeze. This explains why our intuitive expectation of strong absorption of sound in water is incorrect. Water is a very weak absorber of sound (viz. whale songs and sonar), and our incorrect intuition arises from focusing on the wrong property of the substance: water's high density, which is irrelevant, rather than its low viscosity, which is what matters.

Light is an interesting case, since although it can travel through matter, it is not itself a vibration of any material substance. Thus we can look at the star Sirius, 1014 km away from us, and be assured that none of its light was absorbed in the vacuum of outer space during its 9-year journey to us. The Hubble Space Telescope routinely observes light that has been on its way to us since the early history of the universe, billions of years ago. Of course the energy of light can be dissipated if it does pass through matter (and the light from distant galaxies is often absorbed if there happen to be clouds of gas or dust in between).


Radio transmission.

Discussion Questions

A A sound wave that underwent a pressure-inverting reflection would have its compressions converted to expansions and vice versa. How would its energy and frequency compare with those of the original sound? Would it sound any different? What happens if you swap the two wires where they connect to a stereo speaker, resulting in waves that vibrate in the opposite way?

Last Update: 2009-06-21