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Wavelength

The distance between two peaks on a wave.

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Wavelength

Nobody really has such colorful eyes! The colors were added digitally after the photo was taken. They represent all the different colors of light. Light is a form of energy that travels in waves. Light of different colors has different wavelengths.

Defining Wavelength

Wavelength is one way of measuring the size of waves. It is the distance between two corresponding points on adjacent waves, and it is usually measured in meters. How it is measured is a little different for transverse and longitudinal waves.

  • In a transverse wave, particles of the medium vibrate up and down at right angles to the direction that the wave travels. The wavelength of a transverse wave can be measured as the distance between two adjacent crests, or high points, as shown in the Figure below.

Wavelength of a transverse wave

  • In a longitudinal wave, particles of matter vibrate back and forth in the same direction that the wave travels. The wavelength of a longitudinal wave can be measured as the distance between two adjacent compressions, as shown in the Figure below. Compressions are the places where particles of the medium crowd close together as the energy of the wave passes through.

Wavelength of a longitudinal wave

Wavelength and Wave Energy

The wavelength of a wave is related to the wave’s energy. Short-wavelength waves have more energy than long-wavelength waves of the same amplitude. (Amplitude is a measure of how far particles of the medium move up and down or back and forth when a wave passes through them.) You can see examples of transverse waves with shorter and longer wavelengths in the Figure below.  

Waves with short and long wavelengths

Q: Of all the colors of visible light, red light has the longest wavelength and violet light has the shortest wavelength. Which color of light has the greatest energy?

A: Violet light has the greatest energy because it has the shortest wavelength.

Summary

  • Wavelength is one way of measuring the size of waves. It is the distance between two corresponding points on adjacent waves, usually measured in meters.
  • The wavelength of a transverse wave can be measured as the distance between two adjacent crests. The wavelength of a longitudinal wave can be measured as the distance between two adjacent compressions.
  • Short-wavelength waves have more energy than long-wavelength waves of the same amplitude.

Review

  1. What is the wavelength of a wave?
  2. Draw a simple transverse wave and label the wavelength.

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Vocabulary

wavelength

Distance between two corresponding points of adjacent waves, such as the distance between two adjacent crests of a transverse wave.

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