Doppler Effect - How it works

Wave Motion and Its Properties

Sound and light are both examples of energy, and both are carried on waves. Wave motion is a type of harmonic motion that carries energy from one place to another without actually moving any matter. It is related to oscillation, a type of harmonic motion in one or more dimensions. Oscillation involves no net movement, only movement in place; yet individual points in the wave medium are oscillating even as the overall wave pattern moves.

The term periodic motion, or movement repeated at regular intervals called periods, describes the behavior of periodic waves—waves in which a uniform series of crests and troughs follow each other in regular succession. A period (represented by the symbol T ) is the amount of time required to complete one full cycle of the wave, from trough to crest and back to trough.

Period is mathematically related to several other aspects of wave motion, including wave speed, frequency, and wavelength. Frequency (abbreviated f ) is the number of waves passing through a given point during the interval of one second. It is measured in Hertz (Hz), named after nineteenth-century German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894), and a Hertz is equal to one cycle of oscillation per second. Higher frequencies are expressed in terms of kilohertz (kHz; 10 3 or 1,000 cycles per second); megahertz (MHz; 10 6 or 1 million cycles per second); and gigahertz (GHz; 10 9 or 1 billion cycles per second.) Wavelength (represented by the symbol λ, the Greek letter lambda) is the distance between a crest and the adjacent crest, or a trough and an adjacent trough, of a wave. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.

Amplitude, though mathematically independent from the parameters discussed, is critical to the understanding of sound. Defined as the maximum displacement of a vibrating material, amplitude is the "size" of a wave. The greater the amplitude, the greater the energy the wave contains: amplitude indicates intensity, which, in the case of sound waves, is manifested as what people commonly call "volume." Similarly, the

amplitude of a light wave determines the intensity of the light.

Frame of Reference

A knowledge of the fundamentals involved in wave motion is critical to understanding the Doppler effect; so, too, is an appreciation of another phenomenon, which is as much related to human psychology and perception as it is to physics. Frame of reference is the perspective of an observer with regard to an object or event. Things may look different for one person in one frame of reference than they do to someone in another.

For example, if you are sitting across the table from a friend at lunch, and you see that he has a spot of ketchup to the right of his mouth, the tendency is to say, "You have some ketchup right here"—and then point to the left of your own mouth, since you are directly across the table from his right. Then he will rub the left side of his face with his napkin, missing the spot entirely, unless you say something like, "No—mirror image." The problem is that each of you has a different frame of reference, yet only your friend took this into account.


Physicists often speak of relative motion, or the motion of one object in relation to another. For instance, the molecules in the human body are in a constant state of motion, but they are not moving relative to the body itself: they are moving relative to one another.

On a larger scale, Earth is rotating at a rate of about 1,000 MPH (1,600 km/h), and orbiting the Sun at 67,000 MPH (107,826 km/h)—almost three times as fast as humans have ever traveled in a powered vehicle. Yet no one senses the speed of Earth's movement in the way that one senses the movement of a car—or, indeed, the way the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 in 1969 perceived that their spacecraft was moving at about 25,000 MPH (40,000 km/h). In the case of the car or the spacecraft, movement can be perceived in relation to other objects: road signs and buildings on the one hand, Earth and the Moon on the other. But humans have no frame of reference from which to perceive the movement of Earth itself.

If one were traveling in a train alongside another train at constant velocity, it would be impossible to perceive that either train was actually moving, unless one looked at a reference point, such as the trees or mountains in the background. Likewise, if two trains were sitting side by side, and one train started to move, the relative motion might cause a passenger in the unmoving train to believe that his or her train

Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
. Reproduced by permission.)
was the one moving. In fact, as Albert Einstein (1879-1955) demonstrated with his Theory of Relativity, all motion is relative: when we say that something is moving, we mean that it is moving in relation to something else.

Doppler's Discovery

Long before Einstein was born, Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler (1803-1853) made an important discovery regarding the relative motion of sound waves or light waves. While teaching in Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, but then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Doppler became fascinated with a common, but previously unexplained, phenomenon. When an observer is standing beside a railroad track and a train approaches, Doppler noticed, the train's whistle has a high pitch. As it passes by, however, the sound of the train whistle suddenly becomes much lower.

By Doppler's time, physicists had recognized the existence of sound waves, as well as the fact a sound's pitch is a function of frequency—in other words, the closer the waves are to one another, the higher the pitch. Taking this knowledge, he reasoned that if a source of sound is moving toward a listener, the waves in front of the source are compressed, thus creating a higher frequency. On the other hand, the waves behind the moving source are stretched out, resulting in a lower frequency.

After developing a mathematical formula to describe this effect, Doppler presented his findings in 1842. Three years later, he and Dutch meteorologist Christopher Heinrich Buys-Ballot (1817-1890) conducted a highly unusual experiment to demonstrate the theory. Buys-Ballot arranged for a band of trumpet players to perform on an open railroad flatcar, while riding past a platform on which a group of musicians with perfect pitch (that is, a finely tuned sense of hearing) sat listening.

The experiment went on for two days, the flatcar passing by again and again, while the horns blasted and the musicians on the platform recorded their observations. Though Doppler and Buys-Ballot must have seemed like crazy men to those who were not involved in the experiment, the result—as interpreted from the musicians' written impressions of the pitches they heard—confirmed Doppler's theory.

Also read article about Doppler Effect from Wikipedia

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