10 Best Examples of Transverse Waves In Real Life

Waves can be described as propagating dynamic disturbances of one or more quantities. The scientific study of waves dates back to the 17th century, although its concept was around for much longer.

There are many shapes and forms of waves that one can analyze as we delve deeper into this topic. While most of them share the same behavior, some waves can be distinguished from others based on their properties.

One way to characterize them is the way they move in a particular medium, which leads to two notable categories: transverse and longitudinal waves. In this article, we will be focusing on the former.

What Is A Transverse Wave? 

When you picture a wave in your mind, you probably envision a squiggly line with peaks and valleys. This is exactly what a transverse wave looks like. It’s a moving wave that oscillates perpendicular to the direction of its propagation.

Transverse waves can be electromagnetic or mechanical in nature. Electromagnetic waves like light or radio waves do not need a medium to travel. In contrast, mechanical waves are disturbances that travel through a medium. While mechanical waves can be either longitudinal or transverse, electromagnetic waves are always transverse.

Transverse waves are usually produced in elastic solids, where solid particles are displaced away from their initial position, oscillating in directions perpendicular to the propagation of the wave.

A simple demonstration of this wave can be created by moving a rope rapidly up and down. When the rope moves up and down, it produces peaks and troughs. The distance between two adjacent peaks or troughs is the wavelength of a transverse wave.

The particles in the rope are not transported along the wave: they just move up and down as the energy is transmitted from left to right through the medium (rope).

To better explain this phenomenon, we have listed a few good examples of transverse waves that people see in their everyday life.

10. Vibrations In A Guitar String

Form: Mechanical wave

All types of stringed instruments — guitars, violins, pianos — contain stretched strings that oscillate when plucked. This oscillation in the string produces sound. The note depends on the frequency of the vibrating spring, which in turn depends on three parameters:

  • Length of the string
  • Tension in the string
  • Mass per unit length of the string

Although vibrations in guitar strings are transverse waves, the sound they produce is longitudinal in nature. In sound waves, particles move in the same direction as the wave is moving. 

9. Ripples On The Water Surface

Form: Surface waves

The ripples formed in a small, isolated water body due to the disturbance by an external object are transverse in nature. As ripples travel in a spherically outward direction along the water surface, water molecules vibrate up and down.

In other words, water waves propagate horizontally, and its particles vibrate at 90 degrees to the direction of wave (ripple) propagation.

One can visualize it by dropping a feather on the water and then dropping a stone, a few meters away from the feather. The ripples will emerge from the point the stone struck the water and move outward in a circular pattern. When the feather comes in contact with these ripples, it moves up and down (perpendicular to the movement of ripples).  

8. Gamma Rays

Illustration of an emission of a gamma-ray from an atomic nucleus

Form: Electromagnetic radiation

Gamma rays have the most energy and smallest wavelengths of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum. They are produced by lightning, nuclear explosions, and radioactive decay. In space, they are generated by most energetic bodies like pulsars, neutron stars, black holes, and supernova explosions.

These waves are sometimes used to treat cancers in the body by destroying the DNA of tumor cells. But since they are ionizing rays, they are handled with great care. Gamma Knife radiosurgery, for example, utilizes special equipment to focus nearly 200 tiny beams of radiation on tumor cells and other targets with submillimeter accuracy.

7. A Mexican Wave In A Sports Stadium

Form: Mechanical wave

Have you ever attended a game in a stadium and watched the crowd performing ‘a wave’? Well, the Mexican wave is something similar. It’s a metachronal rhythm achieved in a crowded stadium when spectators (sitting in consecutive rows) briefly stand, raise their arms, and yell, and then return to their usual seated position.

If you look from a distance, you will see a wave of standing spectators traveling through the audience, even though people never move away from their seats.

One of the biggest Mexican waves was recorded in Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (a gathering that took place in October 2010 at National Mall in Washington DC), where about 210,000 people participated in a wave.

6. Radio Waves

Form: Electromagnetic waves

Like ripples on the water, a radio wave is a series of repeating peaks and valleys. These waves have the longest wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from 1 millimeter to over 100 kilometers (62 miles).

They are extensively used in standard broadcast radio and television, cellular telephony, air-traffic control, and remote-controlled devices/toys. Even digital radio, both terrestrial and satellite, uses radio waves to provide enhanced audio clarity and volume. Many artificial satellite operating systems and rockets are activated by radio signals.

Radio telescopes are used to detect signals coming from distant planets, stars, galaxies, and black holes. By analyzing these signals, researchers can learn a lot more about the location, chemical composition, and motion of these cosmic sources.

5. Microwave

Form: Electromagnetic waves

Like radio waves, microwaves are a type of electromagnetic radiation that has a wide range of applications, including radar, communications, and cooking. They are also used in modern technology, for example, in keyless entry systems, collision avoidance systems, remote sensing, and spectroscopy.

Microwaves have wavelengths between 1 millimeter and 1 meter, with frequencies ranging from 300 GHz to 300 MHz. This region is further split into several bands, with designations such as L, S, C, X, and K.

4. X-rays

X-ray of human lungs

Form: Electromagnetic radiation

X-ray is well-known for its ability to see through human skin and reveal pictures of the bones beneath it. Recent advances in technology have led to more focused, powerful X-rays beams, and ever greater applications of these transverse waves, from spotting fractures to killing tumor cells.

X-rays have much shorter wavelengths than ultraviolet and visible light. Most have a wavelength ranging from 10 nanometers to 10 picometers, which makes it possible to visualize much smaller structures than can be seen using a conventional optical microscope.

They are also used by art historians to identify whether or not an image has been painted over an existing piece. In astronomy, satellites with X-ray detectors are used to study comets, stars, black holes, and supernova remnants.

3. S-wave

Image credit: University of Saskatchewan 

Form: Seismic wave

Seismic waves travel through the Earth’s layers. They arise due to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, magma movements, large landslides, and massive human-made explosions.

The most common types of seismic waves are P (primary) waves and S (secondary) waves. The latter are transverse in nature. They are the second type of wave to be identified by an earthquake seismogram (after P waves) because they travel slower in rock.

S-waves cannot travel through the Earth’s molten outer core, but they are usually more destructive than P-waves because they are multiple times higher in amplitude. The movements of S-waves create a rolling effect along the surface, which can cause damage to all kinds of structures.

2. Infrared

Form: Electromagnetic radiation

Although we cannot see infrared, we can sense the energy of these waves as heat. The thermal radiation emitted by most objects near room temperature is infrared.

Many household appliances, such as toasters and heat lamps, use infrared to transmit heat. Incandescent bulb converts almost 90% of electrical energy into infrared radiation; only 10% is converted into visible light energy.

Various point-to-point communication devices rely on infrared energy. Remote control, for example, shoots out infrared pulses to the device it’s directing. These pulses are encoded with specific commands such as Volume up/down or Power on/off. The receiver on the device decodes these pulses into the data that the device’s microprocessor can understand.

Read: 9 Best Examples Of Longitudinal Waves In Everyday Life

1. Visible Light

White light refraction through a prism

Form: Electromagnetic radiation

The most common example of the transverse wave is visible light, which usually has wavelengths in the range of 400 to 700 nanometers. It can also be described in terms of streams of photons (massless packets of energy), each photon traveling at 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum.

Light is the only source of food generation for all living organisms except for a few chemotrophic organisms like bacteria. There are hundreds of scientific and commercial applications of light energy. It can be reflected, refracted, or harvested to see objects.

Light properties such as intensity, frequency, propagation direction, and polarization are used to build optical devices like microscopes and telescopes that enable humans to view objects that cannot be seen with the naked eyes.

Natural light from the Sun is harvested to create electricity. Artificial light sources such as LASER are used in free-space optical communication, laser surgery, skin treatments, optical disk drives, fiber-optic, cutting and welding materials, and semiconducting chip manufacturing (photolithography).

Read: What Is A Laser? Acronym | Working | Types

Astronomers also use light to understand the structure and properties of celestial bodies. Space- and ground-based telescopes capture visible light to monitor and study the surface of our planet as well.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from GGSIPU University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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