As stated in the introduction, one can observe the Doppler effect in a number of settings. If a person is standing by the side of a road and a car approaches at a significant rate of speed, the frequency of the sound waves grows until the car passes the observer, then the frequency suddenly drops. But Doppler, of course, never heard the sound of an automobile, or the siren of a motorized ambulance or fire truck.
In his day, the horse-drawn carriage still constituted the principal means of transportation for short distances, and such vehicles did not attain the speeds necessary for the Doppler effect to become noticeable. Only one mode of transportation in the mid-nineteenth century made it possible to observe and record the effect: a steam-powered locomotive. Therefore, let us consider the Doppler effect as Doppler himself did—in terms of a train passing through a s tation.
When a train is sitting in a station prior to leaving, it blows its whistle, but listeners standing nearby notice nothing unusual. There is no difference—except perhaps in degree of intensity—between the sound heard by someone on the platform, and the sound of the train as heard by someone standing behind the caboose. This is because a stationary train is at the center of the sound waves it produces, which radiate in concentric circles (like a bulls-eye) around it.
As the train begins to move, however, it is no longer at the center of the sound waves emanating from it. Instead, the circle of waves is moving forward, along with the train itself, and, thus, the locomotive compresses waves toward the front. If someone is standing further ahead along the track, that person hears the compressed sound waves. Due to their compression, these have a much higher frequency than the waves produced by a stationary train.
At the same time, someone standing behind the train—a listener on the platform at the station, watching the train recede into the distance—hears the sound waves that emanate from behind the train. It is the same train making the same sound, but because the train has compressed the sound waves in front of it, the waves behind it are spread out, producing a sound of much lower frequency. Thus, the sound of the train, as perceived by two different listeners, varies with frame of reference.
Some people today have had the experience of hearing a jet fly high overhead, producing a shock wave known as a sonic boom. A sonic boom, needless to say, is certainly not something of which Doppler would have had any knowledge, nor is it an illustration of the Doppler effect, per se. But it is an example of sound compression, and, therefore, it deserves attention here.
The speed of sound, unlike the speed of light, is dependant on the medium through which it travels. Hence, there is no such thing as a fixed "speed of sound"; rather, there is only a speed at which sound waves are transmitted through a given type of material. Its speed through a gas, such as air, is proportional to the square root of the pressure divided by the density. This, in turn, means that the higher the altitude, the slower the speed of sound: for the altitudes at which jets fly, it is about 660 MPH (1,622 km/h).
As a jet moves through the air, it too produces sound waves which compress toward the front, and widen toward the rear. Since sound waves themselves are really just fluctuations in pressure, this means that the faster a jet goes, the greater the pressure of the sound waves bunched up in front of it. Jet pilots speak of "breaking the sound barrier," which is more than just a figure of speech. As the craft approaches the speed of sound, the pilot becomes aware of a wall of high pressure to the front of the plane, and as a result of this high-pressure wall, the jet experiences enormous turbulence.
The speed of sound is referred to as Mach 1, and at a speed of between Mach 1.2 and Mach 1.4, even stranger things begin to happen. Now the jet is moving faster than the sound waves emanating from it, and, therefore, an observer on the ground sees the jet move by well before hearing the sound. Of course, this would happen to some extent anyway, since light travels so much faster than sound; but the difference between the arrival time of the light waves and the sound waves is even more noticeable in this situation.
Meanwhile, up in the air, every protruding surface of the aircraft experiences intense pressure: in particular, sound waves tend to become highly compressed along the aircraft's nose and tail. Eventually these compressed sound waves build up, resulting in a shock wave. Down on the ground, the shock wave manifests as a "sonic boom"—or rather, two sonic booms—one from the nose of the craft, and one from the tail. People in the aircraft do not hear the boom, but the shock waves produced by the compressed sound can cause sudden changes in pressure, density, and temperature that can pose dangers to the operation of the airplane. To overcome this problem, designers of supersonic aircraft have developed planes with wings that are swept back, so they fit within the cone of pressure.
The Doppler effect has a number of applications relating to the sensing of movement. For instance, physicians and medical technicians apply it to measure the rate and direction of blood flow in a patient's body, along with ultra-sound. As blood moves through an artery, its top speed is 0.89 MPH (0.4 m/s)—not very fast, yet fast enough, given the small area in which movement is taking place, for the Doppler effect to be observed. A beam of ultrasound is pointed toward an artery, and the reflected waves exhibit a shift in frequency, because the blood cells are acting as moving sources of sound waves—just like the trains Doppler observed.
Not all applications of the Doppler effect fall under the heading of "technology": some can be found in nature. Bats use the Doppler effect to hunt for prey. As a bat flies, it navigates by emitting whistles and listening for the echoes. When it is chasing down food, its brain detects a change in pitch between the emitted whistle, and the echo it receives. This tells the bat the speed of its quarry, and the bat adjusts its own speed accordingly.
Police officers may not enjoy the comparison—given the public's general impression of bats as evil, blood-thirsty creatures—but in using radar as a basis to check for speeding violations, the police are applying a principle similar to that used by bats. Doppler radar, which uses the Doppler effect to calculate the speed of moving objects, is a form of technology used not only by law-enforcement officers, but also by meteorologists.
The change in frequency experienced as a result of the Doppler effect is exactly twice the ratio between the velocity of the target (for instance, a speeding car) and the speed with which the radar pulse is directed toward the target. From this formula, it is possible to determine the velocity of the target when the frequency change and speed of radar propagation are known. The police officer's Doppler radar performs these calculations; then all the officer has to do is pull over the speeder and write a ticket.
Meteorologists use Doppler radar to track the movement of storm systems. By detecting the direction and velocity of raindrops or hail, for instance, Doppler radar can be used to determine the motion of winds and, thus, to predict weather patterns that will follow in the next minutes or hours. But Doppler radar can do more than simply detect a storm in progress: Doppler technology also aids meteorologists by interpreting wind direction, as an indicator of coming storms.
So far the Doppler effect has been discussed purely in terms of sound waves; but Doppler himself maintained that it could be applied to light waves as well, and experimentation conducted in 1901 proved him correct. This was far from an obvious point, since light is quite different from sound.
Not only does light travel much, much faster—186,000 mi (299,339 km) a second—but unlike sound, light does not need to travel through a medium. Whereas sound cannot be transmitted in outer space, light is transmitted by radiation, a form of energy transfer that can be directed as easily through a vacuum as through matter.
The Doppler effect in light can be demonstrated by using a device called a spectroscope, which measures the spectral lines from an object of known chemical composition. These spectral lines are produced either by the absorption or emission of specific frequencies of light by electrons in the source material. If the light waves appear at the blue, or high-frequency end of the visible light spectrum, this means that the object is moving toward the observer. If, on the other hand, the light waves appear at the red, or low-frequency end of the spectrum, the object is moving away.
In 1923, American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) observed that the light waves from distant galaxies were shifted so much to the red end of the light spectrum that they must be moving away from the Milky Way, the galaxy in which Earth is located, at a high rate. At the same time, nearer galaxies experienced much less of a red shift, as this phenomenon came to be known, meaning that they were moving away at relatively slower speeds.
Six years later, Hubble and another astronomer, Milton Humason, developed a mathematical formula whereby astronomers could determine the distance to another galaxy by measuring that galaxy's red shifts. The formula came to be known as Hubble's constant, and it established the relationship between red shift and the velocity at which a galaxy or object was receding from Earth. From Hubble's work, it became clear that the universe was expanding, and research by a number of physicists and astronomers led to the development of the "big bang" theory—the idea that the universe emerged almost instantaneously, in some sort of explosion, from a compressed state of matter.
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