Superposition principle

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Superposition of almost plane waves (diagonal lines) from a distant source and waves from the wake of the ducks. Linearity holds only approximately in water and only for waves with small amplitudes relative to their wavelengths. Anas platyrhynchos with ducklings reflecting water.jpg
Superposition of almost plane waves (diagonal lines) from a distant source and waves from the wake of the ducks. Linearity holds only approximately in water and only for waves with small amplitudes relative to their wavelengths.
Rolling motion as superposition of two motions. The rolling motion of the wheel can be described as a combination of two separate motions: translation without rotation, and rotation without translation. Rolling animation.gif
Rolling motion as superposition of two motions. The rolling motion of the wheel can be described as a combination of two separate motions: translation without rotation, and rotation without translation.

The superposition principle, [1] also known as superposition property, states that, for all linear systems, the net response caused by two or more stimuli is the sum of the responses that would have been caused by each stimulus individually. So that if input A produces response X and input B produces response Y then input (A + B) produces response (X + Y).


A function that satisfies the superposition principle is called a linear function. Superposition can be defined by two simpler properties; additivity and homogeneity

for scalar a.

This principle has many applications in physics and engineering because many physical systems can be modeled as linear systems. For example, a beam can be modeled as a linear system where the input stimulus is the load on the beam and the output response is the deflection of the beam. The importance of linear systems is that they are easier to analyze mathematically; there is a large body of mathematical techniques, frequency domain linear transform methods such as Fourier and Laplace transforms, and linear operator theory, that are applicable. Because physical systems are generally only approximately linear, the superposition principle is only an approximation of the true physical behavior.

The superposition principle applies to any linear system, including algebraic equations, linear differential equations, and systems of equations of those forms. The stimuli and responses could be numbers, functions, vectors, vector fields, time-varying signals, or any other object that satisfies certain axioms. Note that when vectors or vector fields are involved, a superposition is interpreted as a vector sum. If the superposition holds, then it automatically also holds for all linear operations applied on these functions (due to definition), such as gradients, differentials or integrals (if they exist).

Relation to Fourier analysis and similar methods

By writing a very general stimulus (in a linear system) as the superposition of stimuli of a specific and simple form, often the response becomes easier to compute.

For example, in Fourier analysis, the stimulus is written as the superposition of infinitely many sinusoids. Due to the superposition principle, each of these sinusoids can be analyzed separately, and its individual response can be computed. (The response is itself a sinusoid, with the same frequency as the stimulus, but generally a different amplitude and phase.) According to the superposition principle, the response to the original stimulus is the sum (or integral) of all the individual sinusoidal responses.

As another common example, in Green's function analysis, the stimulus is written as the superposition of infinitely many impulse functions, and the response is then a superposition of impulse responses.

Fourier analysis is particularly common for waves. For example, in electromagnetic theory, ordinary light is described as a superposition of plane waves (waves of fixed frequency, polarization, and direction). As long as the superposition principle holds (which is often but not always; see nonlinear optics), the behavior of any light wave can be understood as a superposition of the behavior of these simpler plane waves.

Wave superposition

Two waves traveling in opposite directions across the same medium combine linearly. In this animation, both waves have the same wavelength and the sum of amplitudes results in a standing wave. Standing wave 2.gif
Two waves traveling in opposite directions across the same medium combine linearly. In this animation, both waves have the same wavelength and the sum of amplitudes results in a standing wave.
two waves permeate without influencing each other Standing waves1.gif
two waves permeate without influencing each other

Waves are usually described by variations in some parameters through space and time—for example, height in a water wave, pressure in a sound wave, or the electromagnetic field in a light wave. The value of this parameter is called the amplitude of the wave and the wave itself is a function specifying the amplitude at each point.

In any system with waves, the waveform at a given time is a function of the sources (i.e., external forces, if any, that create or affect the wave) and initial conditions of the system. In many cases (for example, in the classic wave equation), the equation describing the wave is linear. When this is true, the superposition principle can be applied. That means that the net amplitude caused by two or more waves traversing the same space is the sum of the amplitudes that would have been produced by the individual waves separately. For example, two waves traveling towards each other will pass right through each other without any distortion on the other side. (See image at the top.)

Wave diffraction vs. wave interference

With regard to wave superposition, Richard Feynman wrote: [2]

No-one has ever been able to define the difference between interference and diffraction satisfactorily. It is just a question of usage, and there is no specific, important physical difference between them. The best we can do, roughly speaking, is to say that when there are only a few sources, say two, interfering, then the result is usually called interference, but if there is a large number of them, it seems that the word diffraction is more often used.

Other authors elaborate: [3]

The difference is one of convenience and convention. If the waves to be superposed originate from a few coherent sources, say, two, the effect is called interference. On the other hand, if the waves to be superposed originate by subdividing a wavefront into infinitesimal coherent wavelets (sources), the effect is called diffraction. That is the difference between the two phenomena is [a matter] of degree only, and basically, they are two limiting cases of superposition effects.

Yet another source concurs: [4]

In as much as the interference fringes observed by Young were the diffraction pattern of the double slit, this chapter [Fraunhofer diffraction] is, therefore, a continuation of Chapter 8 [Interference]. On the other hand, few opticians would regard the Michelson interferometer as an example of diffraction. Some of the important categories of diffraction relate to the interference that accompanies division of the wavefront, so Feynman's observation to some extent reflects the difficulty that we may have in distinguishing division of amplitude and division of wavefront.

Wave interference

The phenomenon of interference between waves is based on this idea. When two or more waves traverse the same space, the net amplitude at each point is the sum of the amplitudes of the individual waves. In some cases, such as in noise-canceling headphones, the summed variation has a smaller amplitude than the component variations; this is called destructive interference. In other cases, such as in a line array, the summed variation will have a bigger amplitude than any of the components individually; this is called constructive interference.

green wave traverse to the right while blue wave traverse left, the net red wave amplitude at each point is the sum of the amplitudes of the individual waves. Waventerference.gif
green wave traverse to the right while blue wave traverse left, the net red wave amplitude at each point is the sum of the amplitudes of the individual waves.
Interference of two waves.svg
wave 1
wave 2

Two waves in phaseTwo waves 180° out
of phase

Departures from linearity

In most realistic physical situations, the equation governing the wave is only approximately linear. In these situations, the superposition principle only approximately holds. As a rule, the accuracy of the approximation tends to improve as the amplitude of the wave gets smaller. For examples of phenomena that arise when the superposition principle does not exactly hold, see the articles nonlinear optics and nonlinear acoustics.

Quantum superposition

In quantum mechanics, a principal task is to compute how a certain type of wave propagates and behaves. The wave is described by a wave function, and the equation governing its behavior is called the Schrödinger equation. A primary approach to computing the behavior of a wave function is to write it as a superposition (called "quantum superposition") of (possibly infinitely many) other wave functions of a certain type—stationary states whose behavior is particularly simple. Since the Schrödinger equation is linear, the behavior of the original wave function can be computed through the superposition principle this way. [5]

The projective nature of quantum-mechanical-state space makes an important difference: it does not permit superposition of the kind that is the topic of the present article. A quantum mechanical state is a ray in projective Hilbert space, not a vector. The sum of two rays is undefined. To obtain the relative phase, we must decompose or split the ray into components

where the and the belongs to an orthonormal basis set. The equivalence class of allows a well-defined meaning to be given to the relative phases of the . [6]

There are some likenesses between the superposition presented in the main on this page and the quantum superposition. Nevertheless, on the topic of quantum superposition, Kramers writes: "The principle of [quantum] superposition ... has no analogy in classical physics." According to Dirac: "the superposition that occurs in quantum mechanics is of an essentially different nature from any occurring in the classical theory [italics in original]." [7]

Boundary value problems

A common type of boundary value problem is (to put it abstractly) finding a function y that satisfies some equation

with some boundary specification

For example, in Laplace's equation with Dirichlet boundary conditions, F would be the Laplacian operator in a region R, G would be an operator that restricts y to the boundary of R, and z would be the function that y is required to equal on the boundary of R.

In the case that F and G are both linear operators, then the superposition principle says that a superposition of solutions to the first equation is another solution to the first equation:

while the boundary values superpose:

Using these facts, if a list can be compiled of solutions to the first equation, then these solutions can be carefully put into a superposition such that it will satisfy the second equation. This is one common method of approaching boundary value problems.

Additive state decomposition

Consider a simple linear system :

By superposition principle, the system can be decomposed into

Superposition principle is only available for linear systems. However, the Additive state decomposition can be applied not only to linear systems but also nonlinear systems. Next, consider a nonlinear system

where is a nonlinear function. By the additive state decomposition, the system can be ‘additively’ decomposed into


This decomposition can help to simplify controller design.

Other example applications


According to Léon Brillouin, the principle of superposition was first stated by Daniel Bernoulli in 1753: "The general motion of a vibrating system is given by a superposition of its proper vibrations." The principle was rejected by Leonhard Euler and then by Joseph Lagrange. Bernoulli argued that any sonorous body could vibrate in a series of simple modes with a well-defined frequency of oscillation. As he had earlier indicated, these modes could be superposed to produce more complex vibrations. In his reaction to Bernoulli’s memoirs, Euler praised his colleague for having best developed the physical part of the problem of vibrating strings, but denied the generality and superiority of the multi-modes solution. [10]

Later it became accepted, largely through the work of Joseph Fourier. [11]

See also

Related Research Articles

Diffraction Phenomenon of the motion of waves

Diffraction refers to various phenomena that occur when a wave encounters an obstacle or opening. It is defined as the bending of waves around the corners of an obstacle or through an aperture into the region of geometrical shadow of the obstacle/aperture. The diffracting object or aperture effectively becomes a secondary source of the propagating wave. Italian scientist Francesco Maria Grimaldi coined the word diffraction and was the first to record accurate observations of the phenomenon in 1660.

Huygens–Fresnel principle Method of analysis

The Huygens–Fresnel principle is a method of analysis applied to problems of wave propagation both in the far-field limit and in near-field diffraction and also reflection. It states that every point on a wavefront is itself the source of spherical wavelets, and the secondary wavelets emanating from different points mutually interfere. The sum of these spherical wavelets forms the wavefront.

Wave interference Phenomenon

In physics, interference is a phenomenon in which two waves superpose to form a resultant wave of greater, lower, or the same amplitude. Constructive and destructive interference result from the interaction of waves that are correlated or coherent with each other, either because they come from the same source or because they have the same or nearly the same frequency. Interference effects can be observed with all types of waves, for example, light, radio, acoustic, surface water waves, gravity waves, or matter waves. The resulting images or graphs are called interferograms.

Wavelength Spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the waves shape repeats, and thus the inverse of the spatial frequency

In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. The inverse of the wavelength is called the spatial frequency. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term wavelength is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.

Wave Repeated oscillation about a stable equilibrium

In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a propagating dynamic disturbance of one or more quantities, sometimes as described by a wave equation. In physical waves, at least two field quantities in the wave medium are involved. Waves can be periodic, in which case those quantities oscillate repeatedly about an equilibrium (resting) value at some frequency. When the entire waveform moves in one direction it is said to be a traveling wave; by contrast, a pair of superimposed periodic waves traveling in opposite directions makes a standing wave. In a standing wave, the amplitude of vibration has nulls at some positions where the wave amplitude appears smaller or even zero.

In quantum mechanics, wave function collapse occurs when a wave function—initially in a superposition of several eigenstates—reduces to a single eigenstate due to interaction with the external world. This interaction is called an "observation". It is the essence of a measurement in quantum mechanics which connects the wave function with classical observables like position and momentum. Collapse is one of two processes by which quantum systems evolve in time; the other is the continuous evolution via the Schrödinger equation. Collapse is a black box for a thermodynamically irreversible interaction with a classical environment. Calculations of quantum decoherence show that when a quantum system interacts with the environment, the superpositions apparently reduce to mixtures of classical alternatives. Significantly, the combined wave function of the system and environment continue to obey the Schrödinger equation. More importantly, this is not enough to explain wave function collapse, as decoherence does not reduce it to a single eigenstate.

Quantum superposition Principle of quantum mechanics

Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics. It states that, much like waves in classical physics, any two quantum states can be added together ("superposed") and the result will be another valid quantum state; and conversely, that every quantum state can be represented as a sum of two or more other distinct states. Mathematically, it refers to a property of solutions to the Schrödinger equation; since the Schrödinger equation is linear, any linear combination of solutions will also be a solution.

Wave function Mathematical description of the quantum state of a system

A wave function in quantum physics is a mathematical description of the quantum state of an isolated quantum system. The wave function is a complex-valued probability amplitude, and the probabilities for the possible results of measurements made on the system can be derived from it. The most common symbols for a wave function are the Greek letters ψ and Ψ.

Quantum decoherence Loss of quantum coherence

Quantum decoherence is the loss of quantum coherence. In quantum mechanics, particles such as electrons are described by a wave function, a mathematical representation of the quantum state of a system; a probabilistic interpretation of the wave function is used to explain various quantum effects. As long as there exists a definite phase relation between different states, the system is said to be coherent. A definite phase relationship is necessary to perform quantum computing on quantum information encoded in quantum states. Coherence is preserved under the laws of quantum physics.

In physics, two wave sources are coherent if their frequency and waveform are identical. Coherence is an ideal property of waves that enables stationary interference. It contains several distinct concepts, which are limiting cases that never quite occur in reality but allow an understanding of the physics of waves, and has become a very important concept in quantum physics. More generally, coherence describes all properties of the correlation between physical quantities of a single wave, or between several waves or wave packets.

Fourier optics is the study of classical optics using Fourier transforms (FTs), in which the waveform being considered is regarded as made up of a combination, or superposition, of plane waves. It has some parallels to the Huygens–Fresnel principle, in which the wavefront is regarded as being made up of a combination of spherical wavefronts whose sum is the wavefront being studied. A key difference is that Fourier optics considers the plane waves to be natural modes of the propagation medium, as opposed to Huygens–Fresnel, where the spherical waves originate in the physical medium.

Korteweg–De Vries equation Mathematical model of waves on a shallow water surface

In mathematics, the Korteweg–De Vries (KdV) equation is a mathematical model of waves on shallow water surfaces. It is particularly notable as the prototypical example of an exactly solvable model, that is, a non-linear partial differential equation whose solutions can be exactly and precisely specified. KdV can be solved by means of the inverse scattering transform. The mathematical theory behind the KdV equation is a topic of active research. The KdV equation was first introduced by Boussinesq and rediscovered by Diederik Korteweg and Gustav de Vries (1895).

Probability amplitude Complex number whose squared absolute value is a probability

In quantum mechanics, a probability amplitude is a complex number used in describing the behaviour of systems. The modulus squared of this quantity represents a probability density.

Coupled cluster (CC) is a numerical technique used for describing many-body systems. Its most common use is as one of several post-Hartree–Fock ab initio quantum chemistry methods in the field of computational chemistry, but it is also used in nuclear physics. Coupled cluster essentially takes the basic Hartree–Fock molecular orbital method and constructs multi-electron wavefunctions using the exponential cluster operator to account for electron correlation. Some of the most accurate calculations for small to medium-sized molecules use this method.

Nonlinear Schrödinger equation

In theoretical physics, the (one-dimensional) nonlinear Schrödinger equation (NLSE) is a nonlinear variation of the Schrödinger equation. It is a classical field equation whose principal applications are to the propagation of light in nonlinear optical fibers and planar waveguides and to Bose–Einstein condensates confined to highly anisotropic cigar-shaped traps, in the mean-field regime. Additionally, the equation appears in the studies of small-amplitude gravity waves on the surface of deep inviscid (zero-viscosity) water; the Langmuir waves in hot plasmas; the propagation of plane-diffracted wave beams in the focusing regions of the ionosphere; the propagation of Davydov's alpha-helix solitons, which are responsible for energy transport along molecular chains; and many others. More generally, the NLSE appears as one of universal equations that describe the evolution of slowly varying packets of quasi-monochromatic waves in weakly nonlinear media that have dispersion. Unlike the linear Schrödinger equation, the NLSE never describes the time evolution of a quantum state. The 1D NLSE is an example of an integrable model.

The Schrödinger–Newton equation, sometimes referred to as the Newton–Schrödinger or Schrödinger–Poisson equation, is a nonlinear modification of the Schrödinger equation with a Newtonian gravitational potential, where the gravitational potential emerges from the treatment of the wave function as a mass density, including a term that represents interaction of a particle with its own gravitational field. The inclusion of a self-interaction term represents a fundamental alteration of quantum mechanics. It can be written either as a single integro-differential equation or as a coupled system of a Schrödinger and a Poisson equation. In the latter case it is also referred to in the plural form.

Nonlinear control theory is the area of control theory which deals with systems that are nonlinear, time-variant, or both. Control theory is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and mathematics that is concerned with the behavior of dynamical systems with inputs, and how to modify the output by changes in the input using feedback, feedforward, or signal filtering. The system to be controlled is called the "plant". One way to make the output of a system follow a desired reference signal is to compare the output of the plant to the desired output, and provide feedback to the plant to modify the output to bring it closer to the desired output.

Diffusion Monte Carlo (DMC) or diffusion quantum Monte Carlo is a quantum Monte Carlo method that uses a Green's function to solve the Schrödinger equation. DMC is potentially numerically exact, meaning that it can find the exact ground state energy within a given error for any quantum system. When actually attempting the calculation, one finds that for bosons, the algorithm scales as a polynomial with the system size, but for fermions, DMC scales exponentially with the system size. This makes exact large-scale DMC simulations for fermions impossible; however, DMC employing a clever approximation known as the fixed-node approximation can still yield very accurate results.

Mild-slope equation Physics phenomenon and formula

In fluid dynamics, the mild-slope equation describes the combined effects of diffraction and refraction for water waves propagating over bathymetry and due to lateral boundaries—like breakwaters and coastlines. It is an approximate model, deriving its name from being originally developed for wave propagation over mild slopes of the sea floor. The mild-slope equation is often used in coastal engineering to compute the wave-field changes near harbours and coasts.

Quantum mechanics was first applied to optics, and interference in particular, by Paul Dirac. Richard Feynman, in his Lectures on Physics, uses Dirac's notation to describe thought experiments on double-slit interference of electrons. Feynman's approach was extended to N-slit interferometers for either single-photon illumination, or narrow-linewidth laser illumination, that is, illumination by indistinguishable photons, by Frank Duarte. The N-slit interferometer was first applied in the generation and measurement of complex interference patterns.


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Further reading