Einstein 1938: What is a Wave?

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter II, section 7 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


What is a Wave?

A bit of gossip starting in London reaches Edinburgh very quickly, even though not a single individual who takes part in spreading it travels between these two cities. There are two quite different motions involved, that of the rumour, London to Edinburgh, and that of the persons who spread the rumour. The wind, passing over a field of grain, sets up a wave which spreads our across the whole field. Here again we must distinguish between the motion of the wave and the motion of the separate plants, which undergo only small oscillations. We have all seen the waves that spread in wider and wider circles when a stone is thrown into a pool of water. The motion of the wave is very different from that of the particles of water. The particles merely go up and down. The observed motion of the wave is that of a state of matter and not of matter itself. A cork floating on the wave shows this clearly, for it moves up and down in imitation of the actual motion of the water, instead of being carried along by the wave.

The observed motion of the wave is that of a state of matter and not of matter itself.

In order to understand better the mechanism of the wave let us again consider an idealized experiment. Suppose that a large space is filled quite uniformly with water, or air, or some other “medium”. Somewhere in the centre there is a sphere. At the beginning of the experiment there is no motion at all. Suddenly the sphere begins to “breathe” rhythmically, expanding and contracting in volume, although retaining its spherical shape. What will happen in the medium? Let us begin our examination at the moment the sphere begins to expand. The particles of the medium in the immediate vicinity of the sphere are pushed out, so that the density of a spherical shell of water, or air, as the case may be, is increased above its normal value. Similarly, when the sphere contracts, the density of that part of the medium immediately surrounding it will be decreased. These changes of density are propagated throughout the entire medium. The particles constituting the medium perform only small vibrations, but the whole motion is that of a progressive wave. The essentially new thing here is that for the first time we consider the motion of something which is not matter, but energy propagated through matter.

The essentially new thing here is that for the first time we consider the motion of something which is not matter, but energy propagated through matter.

Using the example of the pulsating sphere, we may introduce two general physical concepts, important for the characterization of waves. The first is the velocity with which the wave spreads. This will depend on the medium, being different for water and air, for example. The second concept is that of wave-length. In the case of waves on a sea or river it is the distance from the trough of one wave to that of the next, or from the crest of one wave to that of the next. Thus sea waves have greater wave-length than river waves. In the case of our waves set up by a pulsating sphere the wave-length is the distance, at some definite time, between two neighbouring spherical shells showing maxima or minima of density. It is evident that this distance will not depend on the medium alone. The rate of pulsation of the sphere will certainly have a great effect, making the wave-length shorter if the pulsation becomes more rapid, longer if the pulsation becomes slower.

The important details relating to wave are velocity, wave-length, and period or frequency.

This concept of a wave proved very successful in physics. It is definitely a mechanical concept. The phenomenon is reduced to the motion of particles which, according to the kinetic theory, are constituents of matter. Thus every theory which uses the concept of wave can, in general, be regarded as a mechanical theory. For example, the explanation of acoustical phenomena is based essentially on this concept. Vibrating bodies, such as vocal cords and violin strings, are sources of sound waves which are propagated through the air in the manner explained for the pulsating sphere. It is thus possible to reduce all acoustical phenomena to mechanics by means of the wave concept.

It is possible to reduce all acoustical phenomena to mechanics by means of the wave concept.

It has been emphasized that we must distinguish between the motion of the particles and that of the wave itself, which is a state of the medium. The two are very different, but it is apparent that in our example of the pulsating sphere both motions take place in the same straight line. The particles of the medium oscillate along short line segments, and the density increases and decreases periodically in accordance with this motion. The direction in which the wave spreads and the line on which the oscillations lie are the same. This type of wave is called longitudinal. But is this the only kind of wave? It is important for our further considerations to realize the possibility of a different kind of wave, called transverse.

Let us change our previous example. We still have the sphere, but it is immersed in a medium of a different kind, a sort of jelly instead of air or water. Furthermore, the sphere no longer pulsates but rotates in one direction through a small angle and then back again, always in the same rhythmical way and about a definite axis. The jelly adheres to the sphere and thus the adhering portions are forced to imitate the motion. These portions force those situated a little farther away to imitate the same motion, and so on, so that a wave is set up in the medium. If we keep in mind the distinction between the motion of the medium and the motion of the wave, we see that here they do not lie on the same line. The wave is propagated in the direction of the radius of the sphere, while the parts of the medium move perpendicularly to this direction. We have thus created a transverse wave.

There are longitudinal and transverse waves.

Waves spreading on the surface of water are transverse. A floating cork only bobs up and down, but the wave spreads along a horizontal plane. Sound waves, on the other hand, furnish the most familiar example of longitudinal waves.

One more remark: the wave produced by a pulsating or oscillating sphere in a homogeneous medium is a spherical wave. It is called so because at any given moment all points on any sphere surrounding the source behave in the same way. Let us consider a portion of such a sphere at a great distance from the source. The farther away the portion is, and the smaller we choose to take it, the more it resembles a plane. We can say, without trying to be too rigorous, that there is no essential difference between a part of a plane and a part of a sphere whose radius is sufficiently large. We very often speak of small portions of a spherical wave far removed from the source as plane waves. The farther we place the shaded portion of our drawing from the centre of the spheres and the smaller the angle between the two radii, the better our representation of a plane wave. The concept of a plane wave, like many other physical concepts, is no more than a fiction which can be realized with only a certain degree of accuracy. It is, however, a useful concept which we shall need later.

There is also the concept of plan waves far from the source.



Wave is a mechanical concept that requires material medium. The weightless substances are not mechanical. The concept of wave may be quite different for them. It may not travel in a medium.

If there is a wave of light it would be very different compared to a mechanical wave.


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