Standing Waves (Stationary waves)

Not all waves are travelling waves. Standing waves (also known as stationary waves) remain constrained within some region of space. As we shall see, standing waves play an important role in our understanding of the electronic structure of atoms and molecules. The simplest example of a standing wave is a one-dimensional wave associated with a vibrating string that is held fixed at its two end points. Figure 1 shows the four lowest-energy standing waves (the fundamental wave and the lowest three harmonics) for a vibrating string at a particular amplitude. Although the string’s motion lies mostly within a plane, the wave itself is considered to be one dimensional, since it lies along the length of the string. The motion of string segments in a direction perpendicular to the string length generates the waves and so the amplitude of the waves is visible as the maximum displacement of the curves seen in Figure 1. The key observation from the figure is that only those waves having an integer number, n, of half-wavelengths between the end points can form. A system with fixed end points such as this restricts the number and type of the possible waveforms. This is an example of quantization, in which only discrete values from a more general set of continuous values of some property are observed. Another important observation is that the harmonic waves (those waves displaying more than one-half wavelength) all have one or more points between the two end points that are not in motion. These special points are nodes. The energies of the standing waves with a given amplitude in a vibrating string increase with the number of half-wavelengths n. Since the number of nodes is n – 1, the energy can also be said to depend on the number of nodes, generally increasing as the number of nodes increases.

A vibrating string shows some one-dimensional standing waves. Since the two end points of the string are held fixed, only waves having an integer number of half-wavelengths can form. The points on the string between the end points that are not moving are called the nodes.

An example of two-dimensional standing waves is shown in Figure 2, which shows the vibrational patterns on a flat surface. Although the vibrational amplitudes cannot be seen like they could in the vibrating string, the nodes have been made visible by sprinkling the drum surface with a powder that collects on the areas of the surface that have minimal displacement. For one-dimensional standing waves, the nodes were points on the line, but for two-dimensional standing waves, the nodes are lines on the surface (for three-dimensional standing waves, the nodes are two-dimensional surfaces within the three-dimensional volume).

Two-dimensional standing waves can be visualized on a vibrating surface. The surface has been sprinkled with a powder that collects near the nodal lines. There are two types of nodes visible: radial nodes (circles) and angular nodes (radii).

You can watch the formation of various radial nodes here as singer Imogen Heap projects her voice across a kettle drum.