Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • This chapter is unavailable for purchase
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Waves


Optics is the study of wave propagation and its quantum implications, the latter now being generally called ‘photonics’. Traditionally, optics has centred around visible light waves, but the concepts that have developed over the years have been found increasingly useful when applied to many other types of wave, both inside and outside the electromagnetic spectrum. This chapter will first introduce the general concepts of classical wave propagation, and describe how waves are treated mathematically.

However, since there are many examples of wave propagation that are difficult to analyze exactly, several concepts have evolved that allow wave propagation problems to be solved at a more intuitive level. The latter half of the chapter will be devoted to describing these methods, due to Huygens and Fermat, and will be illustrated by examples of their application to wave propagation in scenarios where analytical solutions are very hard to come by. One example, the propagation of light waves passing near a heavy massive body, called ‘gravitational lensing’ is shown in Fig. 2.1; the figure shows two images of distant sources distorted by such gravitational lenses, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, compared with experimental laboratory simulations. Although analytical methods do exist for these situations, Huygens' construction makes their solution much easier (§2.8).

A wave is essentially a temporary disturbance in a medium in stable equilibrium. Following the disturbance, the medium returns to equilibrium, and the energy of the disturbance is dissipated in a dynamic manner.