In physics, mathematics, and related fields, a wave is a disturbance (change from equilibrium) of one or more fields such that the field values oscillate repeatedly about a stable equilibrium (resting) value. If the relative amplitude of oscillation at different points in the field remains constant, the wave is said to be a standing wave. If the relative amplitude at different points in the field changes, the wave is said to be a traveling wave. Waves can only exist in fields when there is a force that tends to restore the field to equilibrium.
The types of waves most commonly studied in physics are mechanical and electromagnetic. In a mechanical wave, stress and strain fields oscillate about a mechanical equilibrium. A traveling mechanical wave is a local deformation (strain) in some physical medium that propagates from particle to particle by creating local stresses that cause strain in neighboring particles too. For example, sound waves in air are variations of the local pressure that propagate by collisions between gas molecules. Other examples of mechanical waves are seismic waves, gravity waves, vortices, and shock waves. In an electromagnetic wave the electric and magnetic fields oscillate. A traveling electromagnetic wave (light) consists of a combination of variable electric and magnetic fields, that propagates through space according to Maxwell's equations. Electromagnetic waves can travel through transparent dielectric media or through a vacuum; examples include radio waves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays.
Other types of waves include gravitational waves, which are disturbances in a gravitational field that propagate according to general relativity; heat diffusion waves; plasma waves, that combine mechanical deformations and electromagnetic fields; reaction-diffusion waves, such as in the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction; and many more.
Mechanical and electromagnetic waves transfer energy,, momentum, and information, but they do not transfer particles in the medium. In mathematics and electronics waves are studied as signals. On the other hand, some waves do not appear to move at all, like standing waves (which are fundamental to music) and hydraulic jumps. Some, like the probability waves of quantum mechanics, may be completely static.
A physical wave is almost always confined to some finite region of space, called its domain. For example, the seismic waves generated by earthquakes are significant only in the interior and surface of the planet, so they can be ignored outside it. However, waves with infinite domain, that extend over the whole space, are commonly studied in mathematics, and are very valuable tools for understanding physical waves in finite domains.
A plane wave seems to travel in a definite direction, and has constant value over any plane perpendicular to that direction. Mathematically, the simplest waves are the sinusoidal ones in which each point in the field experiences simple harmonic motion. Complicated waves can often be described as the sum of many sinusoidal plane waves. A plane wave can be a transverse, if its effect at each point is described by a vector that is perpendicular to the direction of propagation or energy transfer; or longitudinal, if the describing vectors are parallel to the direction of energy propagation. While mechanical waves can be both transverse and longitudinal, electromagnetic waves are transverse in free space.
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