Did you ever hear an echo of your own voice? An echo occurs when sound waves bounce back from a surface that they can’t pass through. The woman pictured here is trying to create an echo by shouting toward a large building. When the sound waves strike the wall of the building, most of them bounce back toward the woman, and she hears an echo of her voice. An echo is just one example of how waves interact with matter.
How Waves Interact with Matter
Waves interact with matter in several ways. The interactions occur when waves pass from one medium to another. The types of interactions are reflection, refraction, and diffraction. Each type of interaction is described in detail below.
An echo is an example of wave reflection. Reflection occurs when waves bounce back from a surface they cannot pass through. Reflection can happen with any type of waves, not just sound waves. For example, light waves can also be reflected. In fact, that’s how we see most objects. Light from a light source, such as the sun or a light bulb, shines on the object and some of the light is reflected. When the reflected light enters our eyes, we can see the object.
Reflected waves have the same speed and frequency as the original waves before they were reflected. However, the direction of the reflected waves is different. When waves strike an obstacle head on, the reflected waves bounce straight back in the direction they came from. When waves strike an obstacle at any other angle, they bounce back at the same angle but in a different direction. This is illustrated in the Figure below. In this diagram, waves strike a wall at an angle, called the angle of incidence. The waves are reflected at the same angle, called the angle of reflection, but in a different direction. Notice that both angles are measured relative to a line that is perpendicular to the wall.
Refraction is another way that waves interact with matter. Refraction occurs when waves bend as they enter a new medium at an angle. You can see an example of refraction in the Figure below. Light bends when it passes from air to water or from water to air. The bending of the light traveling from the fish to the man’s eyes causes the fish to appear to be in a different place from where it actually is.
Waves bend as they enter a new medium because they start traveling at a different speed in the new medium. For example, light travels more slowly in water than in air. This causes it to refract when it passes from air to water or from water to air.
Q: Where would the fish appear to be if the man looked down at it from straight above its actual location?
A: The fish would appear to be where it actually is because refraction occurs only when waves (in this case light waves from the fish) enter a new medium at an angle other than 90°.
Did you ever notice that you can hear sounds around the corners of buildings even though you can’t see around them? The Figure below shows why this happens. As you can see from the figure, sound waves spread out and travel around obstacles. This is called diffraction. It also occurs when waves pass through an opening in an obstacle. All waves may be diffracted, but it is more pronounced in some types of waves than others. For example, sound waves bend around corners much more than light does. That’s why you can hear but not see around corners.
For a given type of waves, such as sound waves, how much the waves diffract depends on the size of the obstacle (or opening in the obstacle) and the wavelength of the waves. The Figure below shows how the amount of diffraction is affected by the size of the opening in a barrier. Note that the wavelength of the wave is the distance between the vertical lines.
- Three ways that waves may interact with matter are reflection, refraction, and diffraction.
- Reflection occurs when waves bounce back from a surface that they cannot pass through.
- Refraction occurs when waves bend as they enter a new medium at an angle and start traveling at a different speed.
- Diffraction occurs when waves spread out as they travel around obstacles or through openings in obstacles.
- What is reflection? What happens if waves strike a reflective surface at an angle other than 90°?
- Define refraction. Why does refraction occur?
- When does diffraction occur? How is wavelength related to diffraction?