12 Superposition

Pressure Variation in Stationary Sound Waves

For sound waves, we learnt that the compressions (position of maximum pressure) and rarefactions (minimum pressure) occur at the equilibrium position of the displacement of particles. This suggests that the pressure would vary the most in a stationary wave at the nodes of displacement. Right in the middle between two adjacent displacement nodes is the displacement antinode and we should expect the pressure variation to be the minimum there.

A displacement node is a pressure antinode.
A displacement antinode is a pressure node.

The standing waves associated with resonance in air columns can, therefore, be visualized in terms of the pressure variations in the column. Daniel A. Russell from The Pennsylvania State University made a wonderful animation showing how the variation of pressure occurs along an air column. (Link here)

It is a common misconception, even among physics teachers, that if a microphone is moved along the air column, it will pick up the loudest sounds at the displacement antinodes. However, according to Young & Geller (2007), College Physics 8th Edition, Pearson Education Inc. (pg 385), microphones and similar devices usually sense pressure variations and not displacements. In other words, the position within a stationary sound wave at which the loudest sound is picked up is at the displacement nodes which are the pressure antinodes.

Update: I made a GeoGebra interactive version of this animation of a stationary longitudinal wave.

Also check out my animation for a progressive longitudinal wave.

Single Slit Diffraction using Fingers

This demonstration requires no material other than your own fingers. Hold your index and middle fingers close to each other, leaving a small slit between them about 1 mm in width.

Look through the slit into a source of light such as the window or a lamp. You will need to look with one eye up close to the slit. Warning: do not look directly at the sun.

You will be able to see a number of vertical dark lines between the fingers.

diffraction and interference pattern,

Science Explained

So where do these vertical lines come from? They are dark fringes caused by destructive interference of light when it diffracts through your finger tips.

This phenomenon can be explained using Huygens’ principle. Huygens pictures every point on a primary wavefront as a source of secondary wavelets and the sum of these secondary waves determines the form of the wave at any subsequent time. Hence, each of these secondary wavelets can interference with one another.

Constructive interference takes place when the difference in path lengths between two coherent waves is an integer multiple of the wavelength. This is when the resultant wave is the brightest. Destructive interference occurs when that difference in path length is a half-integer of the wavelength (e.g. $\frac{1}{2}\lambda$, $\frac{3}{2}\lambda$, $\frac{5}{2}\lambda$, etc.) and gives a dark fringe.

The alternating bright and dark fringes is a diffraction pattern, which becomes observable by the eye looking through the slit.