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Diagram illustrating the relationship between the wavenumber and the other properties of harmonic waves. Commutative diagram of harmonic wave properties.svg
Diagram illustrating the relationship between the wavenumber and the other properties of harmonic waves.

In the physical sciences, the wavenumber (also wave number or repetency [1] ) is the spatial frequency of a wave, measured in cycles per unit distance or radians per unit distance. Whereas temporal frequency can be thought of as the number of waves per unit time, wavenumber is the number of waves per unit distance.


In multidimensional systems, the wavenumber is the magnitude of the wave vector. The space of wave vectors is called reciprocal space. Wave numbers and wave vectors play an essential role in optics and the physics of wave scattering, such as X-ray diffraction, neutron diffraction, electron diffraction, and elementary particle physics. For quantum mechanical waves, the wavenumber multiplied by the reduced Planck's constant is the canonical momentum.

Wavenumber can be used to specify quantities other than spatial frequency. In optical spectroscopy, it is often used as a unit of temporal frequency assuming a certain speed of light.


Wavenumber, as used in spectroscopy and most chemistry fields, is defined as the number of wavelengths per unit distance, typically centimeters (cm−1):


where λ is the wavelength. It is sometimes called the "spectroscopic wavenumber". [1] It equals the spatial frequency.

In theoretical physics, a wave number defined as the number of radians per unit distance, sometimes called "angular wavenumber", is more often used: [2]

When wavenumber is represented by the symbol ν, a frequency is still being represented, albeit indirectly. As described in the spectroscopy section, this is done through the relationship , where νs is a frequency in hertz. This is done for convenience as frequencies tend to be very large. [3]

It has dimensions of reciprocal length, so its SI unit is the reciprocal of meters (m1). In spectroscopy it is usual to give wavenumbers in cgs unit (i.e., reciprocal centimeters; cm1); in this context, the wavenumber was formerly called the kayser, after Heinrich Kayser (some older scientific papers used this unit, abbreviated as K, where 1 K = 1 cm−1). [4] The angular wavenumber may be expressed in radians per meter (radm−1), or as above, since the radian is dimensionless.

For electromagnetic radiation in vacuum, wavenumber is proportional to frequency and to photon energy. Because of this, wavenumbers are used as a unit of energy in spectroscopy.


A complex-valued wavenumber can be defined for a medium with complex-valued relative permittivity ε, relative permeability μ and refraction index n as: [5]

where k0 is the free-space wavenumber, as above. The imaginary part of the wavenumber expresses attenuation per unit distance and is useful in the study of exponentially decaying evanescent fields.

In wave equations

Here we assume that the wave is regular in the sense that the different quantities describing the wave such as the wavelength, frequency and thus the wavenumber are constants. See wavepacket for discussion of the case when these quantities are not constant.

In general, the angular wavenumber k (i.e. the magnitude of the wave vector) is given by

where ν is the frequency of the wave, λ is the wavelength, ω = 2πν is the angular frequency of the wave, and vp is the phase velocity of the wave. The dependence of the wavenumber on the frequency (or more commonly the frequency on the wavenumber) is known as a dispersion relation.

For the special case of an electromagnetic wave in a vacuum, in which the wave propagates at the speed of light, k is given by:

where E is the energy of the wave, ħ is the reduced Planck constant, and c is the speed of light in a vacuum.

For the special case of a matter wave, for example an electron wave, in the non-relativistic approximation (in the case of a free particle, that is, the particle has no potential energy):

Here p is the momentum of the particle, m is the mass of the particle, E is the kinetic energy of the particle, and ħ is the reduced Planck constant.

Wavenumber is also used to define the group velocity.

In spectroscopy

In spectroscopy, "wavenumber" often refers to a frequency which has been divided by the speed of light in vacuum:

The historical reason for using this spectroscopic wavenumber rather than frequency is that it proved to be convenient in the measurement of atomic spectra: the spectroscopic wavenumber is the reciprocal of the wavelength of light in vacuum:

which remains essentially the same in air, and so the spectroscopic wavenumber is directly related to the angles of light scattered from diffraction gratings and the distance between fringes in interferometers, when those instruments are operated in air or vacuum. Such wavenumbers were first used in the calculations of Johannes Rydberg in the 1880s. The Rydberg–Ritz combination principle of 1908 was also formulated in terms of wavenumbers. A few years later spectral lines could be understood in quantum theory as differences between energy levels, energy being proportional to wavenumber, or frequency. However, spectroscopic data kept being tabulated in terms of spectroscopic wavenumber rather than frequency or energy.

For example, the spectroscopic wavenumbers of the emission spectrum of atomic hydrogen are given by the Rydberg formula:

where R is the Rydberg constant, and ni and nf are the principal quantum numbers of the initial and final levels respectively (ni is greater than nf for emission).

A spectroscopic wavenumber can be converted into energy per photon E by Planck's relation:

It can also be converted into wavelength of light:

where n is the refractive index of the medium. Note that the wavelength of light changes as it passes through different media, however, the spectroscopic wavenumber (i.e., frequency) remains constant.

Conventionally, inverse centimeter (cm−1) units are used for , so often that such spatial frequencies are stated by some authors "in wavenumbers", [6] incorrectly transferring the name of the quantity to the CGS unit cm−1 itself. [7]

A wavenumber in inverse cm can be converted to a frequency in GHz by multiplying by 29.9792458 (the speed of light in centimeters per nanosecond). [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

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. Frequency is measured in units of hertz (Hz) which is equal to one occurrence of a repeating event per second. 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, T, — 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.

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.

Brightness temperature or radiance temperature is the temperature of a black body in thermal equilibrium with its surroundings, in order to duplicate the observed intensity of a grey body object at a frequency . This concept is used in radio astronomy, planetary science and materials science.

Fourier-transform spectroscopy is a measurement technique whereby spectra are collected based on measurements of the coherence of a radiative source, using time-domain or space-domain measurements of the electromagnetic radiation or other type of radiation. It can be applied to a variety of types of spectroscopy including optical spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI), mass spectrometry and electron spin resonance spectroscopy. There are several methods for measuring the temporal coherence of the light, including the continuous wave Michelson or Fourier-transform spectrometer and the pulsed Fourier-transform spectrograph.

A wavenumber–frequency diagram is a plot displaying the relationship between the wavenumber and the frequency of certain phenomena. Usually frequencies are placed on the vertical axis, while wavenumbers are placed on the horizontal axis.

Planck's law describes the spectral density of electromagnetic radiation emitted by a black body in thermal equilibrium at a given temperature T, when there is no net flow of matter or energy between the body and its environment.

Rayleigh–Jeans law approximation of a black bodys spectral radiance

In physics, the Rayleigh–Jeans Law is an approximation to the spectral radiance of electromagnetic radiation as a function of wavelength from a black body at a given temperature through classical arguments. For wavelength , it is:

Debye model Method in physics

In thermodynamics and solid state physics, the Debye model is a method developed by Peter Debye in 1912 for estimating the phonon contribution to the specific heat in a solid. It treats the vibrations of the atomic lattice (heat) as phonons in a box, in contrast to the Einstein model, which treats the solid as many individual, non-interacting quantum harmonic oscillators. The Debye model correctly predicts the low temperature dependence of the heat capacity, which is proportional to – the Debye T3 law. Just like the Einstein model, it also recovers the Dulong–Petit law at high temperatures. But due to simplifying assumptions, its accuracy suffers at intermediate temperatures.

In physics, a wave vector 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, and its direction is ordinarily the direction of wave propagation.

Dispersion relation Relation of wavelength/wavenumber as a function of a waves frequency

In the physical sciences and electrical engineering, dispersion relations describe the effect of dispersion on the properties of waves in a medium. A dispersion relation relates the wavelength or wavenumber of a wave to its frequency. Given the dispersion relation, one can calculate the phase velocity and group velocity of waves in the medium, as a function of frequency. In addition to the geometry-dependent and material-dependent dispersion relations, the overarching Kramers–Kronig relations describe the frequency dependence of wave propagation and attenuation.

In quantum mechanics, the results of the quantum particle in a box can be used to look at the equilibrium situation for a quantum ideal gas in a box which is a box containing a large number of molecules which do not interact with each other except for instantaneous thermalizing collisions. This simple model can be used to describe the classical ideal gas as well as the various quantum ideal gases such as the ideal massive Fermi gas, the ideal massive Bose gas as well as black body radiation which may be treated as a massless Bose gas, in which thermalization is usually assumed to be facilitated by the interaction of the photons with an equilibrated mass.

The Compton wavelength is a quantum mechanical property of a particle. It was introduced by Arthur Compton in his explanation of the scattering of photons by electrons. The Compton wavelength of a particle is equal to the wavelength of a photon whose energy is the same as the mass of that particle.

In fluid dynamics, dispersion of water waves generally refers to frequency dispersion, which means that waves of different wavelengths travel at different phase speeds. Water waves, in this context, are waves propagating on the water surface, with gravity and surface tension as the restoring forces. As a result, water with a free surface is generally considered to be a dispersive medium.

The four-frequency of a massless particle, such as a photon, is a four-vector defined by

In radiometry, radiant exitance or radiant emittance is the radiant flux emitted by a surface per unit area, whereas spectral exitance or spectral emittance is the radiant exitance of a surface per unit frequency or wavelength, depending on whether the spectrum is taken as a function of frequency or of wavelength. This is the emitted component of radiosity. The SI unit of radiant exitance is the watt per square metre, while that of spectral exitance in frequency is the watt per square metre per hertz (W·m−2·Hz−1) and that of spectral exitance in wavelength is the watt per square metre per metre (W·m−3)—commonly the watt per square metre per nanometre. The CGS unit erg per square centimeter per second is often used in astronomy. Radiant exitance is often called "intensity" in branches of physics other than radiometry, but in radiometry this usage leads to confusion with radiant intensity.

The Rydberg–Ritz combination principle is an empirical generalization proposed by Walther Ritz in 1908 to describe the relationship of the spectral lines for all atoms. The principle states that the spectral lines of any element include frequencies that are either the sum or the difference of the frequencies of two other lines. Lines of the spectra of elements could be predicted from existing lines. Since the frequency of light is proportional to the wavenumber or reciprocal wavelength, the principle can also be expressed in terms of wavenumbers which are the sum or difference of wavenumbers of two other lines.

Plasma parameters

Plasma parameters define various characteristics of a plasma, an electrically conductive collection of charged particles that responds collectively to electromagnetic forces. Plasma typically takes the form of neutral gas-like clouds or charged ion beams, but may also include dust and grains. The behaviour of such particle systems can be studied statistically.

Free spectral range (FSR) is the spacing in optical frequency or wavelength between two successive reflected or transmitted optical intensity maxima or minima of an interferometer or diffractive optical element.

Planck constant physical constant representing the quantum of action

The Planck constant, or Planck's constant, denoted , is a physical constant that is the quantum of electromagnetic action, which relates the energy carried by a photon to its frequency. A photon's energy is equal to its frequency multiplied by the Planck constant. The Planck constant is of fundamental importance in quantum mechanics. In metrology it is the basis for the definition of the kilogram.

The Planck–Einstein relation is also referred to as the Einstein relation, Planck's energy–frequency relation, the Planck relation, and the Planck equation. Also the eponym Planck formula belongs on this list, but also often refers to Planck's law instead. These various eponyms are far from standard; they are used only sporadically, neither regularly nor very widely. They refer to a formula integral to quantum mechanics, which states that the energy of a photon, E, known as photon energy, is proportional to its frequency, ν:


  1. 1 2 Quantities and units Part 3: Space and time
  2. W., Weisstein, Eric. "Wavenumber -- from Eric Weisstein's World of Physics". scienceworld.wolfram.com. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  3. "Wave number". Encyclopædia Britannica . Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  4. Murthy, V. L. R.; Lakshman, S. V. J. (1981). "Electronic absorption spectrum of cobalt antipyrine complex". Solid State Communications. 38 (7): 651–652. Bibcode:1981SSCom..38..651M. doi:10.1016/0038-1098(81)90960-1.
  5. , eq.(2.13.3)
  6. See for example,
  7. Hollas, J. Michael (2004). Modern spectroscopy. John Wiley & Sons. p. xxii. ISBN   978-0470844151.
  8. "NIST: Wavenumber Calibration Tables - Description". physics.nist.gov. Retrieved 19 March 2018.