Wave vector

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In physics, a wave vector (also spelled wavevector) is a vector which helps describe a wave. Like any vector, it has a magnitude and direction, both of which are important. Its magnitude is either the wavenumber or angular wavenumber of the wave (inversely proportional to the wavelength), and its direction is ordinarily the direction of wave propagation (but not always, see below).

Physics Study of the fundamental properties of matter and energy

Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its motion and behavior through space and time, and that studies the related entities of energy and force. Physics is one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines, and its main goal is to understand how the universe behaves.

Wave oscillation that travels through space and matter

In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a disturbance of a field in which a physical attribute oscillates repeatedly at each point or propagates from each point to neighboring points, or seems to move through space.

Euclidean vector Geometric object that has magnitude (or length) and direction

In mathematics, physics, and engineering, a Euclidean vector is a geometric object that has magnitude and direction. Vectors can be added to other vectors according to vector algebra. A Euclidean vector is frequently represented by a line segment with a definite direction, or graphically as an arrow, connecting an initial pointA with a terminal pointB, and denoted by


In the context of special relativity the wave vector can also be defined as a four-vector.

Special relativity Theory of interwoven space and time by Albert Einstein

In physics, special relativity is the generally accepted and experimentally confirmed physical theory regarding the relationship between space and time. In Albert Einstein's original pedagogical treatment, it is based on two postulates:

  1. the laws of physics are invariant in all inertial frames of reference ; and
  2. the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the motion of the light source or observer.
Four-vector Vector in special relativity well-behaved with respect to Lorentz transformations

In special relativity, a four-vector is an object with four components, which transform in a specific way under Lorentz transformation. Specifically, a four-vector is an element of a four-dimensional vector space considered as a representation space of the standard representation of the Lorentz group, the (½,½) representation. It differs from a Euclidean vector in how its magnitude is determined. The transformations that preserve this magnitude are the Lorentz transformations, which include spatial rotations and boosts.


Wavelength of a sine wave, l, can be measured between any two consecutive points with the same phase, such as between adjacent crests, or troughs, or adjacent zero crossings with the same direction of transit, as shown. Sine wavelength.svg
Wavelength of a sine wave, λ, can be measured between any two consecutive points with the same phase, such as between adjacent crests, or troughs, or adjacent zero crossings with the same direction of transit, as shown.

There are two common definitions of wave vector, which differ by a factor of 2π in their magnitudes. One definition is preferred in physics and related fields, while the other definition is preferred in crystallography and related fields. [1] For this article, they will be called the "physics definition" and the "crystallography definition", respectively.

Crystallography The scientific study of crystal structure

Crystallography is the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids. The word "crystallography" is derived from the Greek words crystallon "cold drop, frozen drop", with its meaning extending to all solids with some degree of transparency, and graphein "to write". In July 2012, the United Nations recognised the importance of the science of crystallography by proclaiming that 2014 would be the International Year of Crystallography. X-ray crystallography is used to determine the structure of large biomolecules such as proteins. Before the development of X-ray diffraction crystallography, the study of crystals was based on physical measurements of their geometry. This involved measuring the angles of crystal faces relative to each other and to theoretical reference axes, and establishing the symmetry of the crystal in question. This physical measurement is carried out using a goniometer. The position in 3D space of each crystal face is plotted on a stereographic net such as a Wulff net or Lambert net. The pole to each face is plotted on the net. Each point is labelled with its Miller index. The final plot allows the symmetry of the crystal to be established.

In both definitions below, the magnitude of the wave vector is represented by ; the direction of the wave vector is discussed in the following section.

Physics definition

A perfect one-dimensional traveling wave follows the equation:


The amplitude of a periodic variable is a measure of its change over a single period. There are various definitions of amplitude, which are all functions of the magnitude of the difference between the variable's extreme values. In older texts the phase is sometimes called the amplitude.

Angular frequency physical quantity

In physics, angular frequencyω is a scalar measure of rotation rate. It refers to the angular displacement per unit time or the rate of change of the phase of a sinusoidal waveform, or as the rate of change of the argument of the sine function.

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute, its period—the time interval between beats—is half a second. Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.

is the magnitude of the wave vector. In this one-dimensional example, the direction of the wave vector is trivial: this wave travels in the +x direction with speed (more specifically, phase velocity) . In a multidimensional system, the scalar would be replaced by the vector dot product , representing the wave vector and the position vector, respectively.

Phase velocity rate at which the phase of the wave propagates in space

The phase velocity of a wave is the rate at which the phase of the wave propagates in space. This is the velocity at which the phase of any one frequency component of the wave travels. For such a component, any given phase of the wave will appear to travel at the phase velocity. The phase velocity is given in terms of the wavelength λ (lambda) and time period T as

In mathematical systems theory, a multidimensional system or m-D system is a system in which not only one independent variable exists, but there are several independent variables.

Crystallography definition

In crystallography, the same waves are described using slightly different equations. [2] In one and three dimensions respectively:

The differences between the above two definitions are:

The direction of k is discussed in the next section.

Direction of the wave vector

The direction in which the wave vector points must be distinguished from the "direction of wave propagation". The "direction of wave propagation" is the direction of a wave's energy flow, and the direction that a small wave packet will move, i.e. the direction of the group velocity. For light waves, this is also the direction of the Poynting vector. On the other hand, the wave vector points in the direction of phase velocity. In other words, the wave vector points in the normal direction to the surfaces of constant phase, also called wavefronts.

In a lossless isotropic medium such as air, any gas, any liquid, or some solids (such as glass), the direction of the wavevector is exactly the same as the direction of wave propagation. If the medium is lossy, the wave vector in general points in directions other than that of wave propagation. The condition for the wave vector to point in the same direction in which the wave propagates is that the wave has to be homogeneous, which isn't necessarily satisfied when the medium is lossy. In a homogeneous wave, the surfaces of constant phase are also surfaces of constant amplitude. In case of heterogeneous waves, these two species of surfaces differ in orientation. The wave vector is always perpendicular to surfaces of constant phase.

For example, when a wave travels through an anisotropic medium, such as light waves through an asymmetric crystal or sound waves through a sedimentary rock, the wave vector may not point exactly in the direction of wave propagation. [3] [4]

In solid-state physics

In solid-state physics, the "wavevector" (also called k-vector) of an electron or hole in a crystal is the wavevector of its quantum-mechanical wavefunction. These electron waves are not ordinary sinusoidal waves, but they do have a kind of envelope function which is sinusoidal, and the wavevector is defined via that envelope wave, usually using the "physics definition". See Bloch wave for further details. [5]

In special relativity

A moving wave surface in special relativity may be regarded as a hypersurface (a 3D subspace) in spacetime, formed by all the events passed by the wave surface. A wavetrain (denoted by some variable X) can be regarded as a one-parameter family of such hypersurfaces in spacetime. This variable X is a scalar function of position in spacetime. The derivative of this scalar is a vector that characterizes the wave, the four-wavevector. [6]

The four-wavevector is a wave four-vector that is defined, in Minkowski coordinates, as:

where the angular frequency is the temporal component, and the wavenumber vector is the spatial component.

Alternately, the wavenumber can be written as the angular frequency divided by the phase-velocity , or in terms of inverse period and inverse wavelength .

When written out explicitly its contravariant and covariant forms are:

In general, the Lorentz scalar magnitude of the wave four-vector is:

The four-wavevector is null for massless (photonic) particles, where the rest mass

An example of a null four-wavevector would be a beam of coherent, monochromatic light, which has phase-velocity

{for light-like/null}

which would have the following relation between the frequency and the magnitude of the spatial part of the four-wavevector:

{for light-like/null}

The four-wavevector is related to the four-momentum as follows:

The four-wavevector is related to the four-frequency as follows:

The four-wavevector is related to the four-velocity as follows:

Lorentz transformation

Taking the Lorentz transformation of the four-wavevector is one way to derive the relativistic Doppler effect. The Lorentz matrix is defined as

In the situation where light is being emitted by a fast moving source and one would like to know the frequency of light detected in an earth (lab) frame, we would apply the Lorentz transformation as follows. Note that the source is in a frame Ss and earth is in the observing frame, Sobs. Applying the Lorentz transformation to the wave vector

and choosing just to look at the component results in

where is the direction cosine of wrt


Source moving away (redshift)

As an example, to apply this to a situation where the source is moving directly away from the observer (), this becomes:

Source moving towards (blueshift)

To apply this to a situation where the source is moving straight towards the observer (), this becomes:

Source moving tangentially (transverse Doppler effect)

To apply this to a situation where the source is moving transversely with respect to the observer (), this becomes:

See also

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  1. Physics definition example:Harris, Benenson, Stöcker (2002). Handbook of Physics. p. 288. ISBN   978-0-387-95269-7.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link). Crystallography definition example: Vaĭnshteĭn (1994). Modern Crystallography. p. 259. ISBN   978-3-540-56558-1.
  2. Vaĭnshteĭn, Boris Konstantinovich (1994). Modern Crystallography. p. 259. ISBN   978-3-540-56558-1.
  3. Fowles, Grant (1968). Introduction to modern optics. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. p. 177.
  4. "This effect has been explained by Musgrave (1959) who has shown that the energy of an elastic wave in an anisotropic medium will not, in general, travel along the same path as the normal to the plane wavefront...", Sound waves in solids by Pollard, 1977. link
  5. Donald H. Menzel (1960). "§10.5 Bloch waves". Fundamental Formulas of Physics, Volume 2 (Reprint of Prentice-Hall 1955 2nd ed.). Courier-Dover. p. 624. ISBN   978-0486605968.
  6. Wolfgang Rindler (1991). "§24 Wave motion". Introduction to Special Relativity (2nd ed.). Oxford Science Publications. pp. 60–65. ISBN   978-0-19-853952-0.

Further reading