How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 573

How are light and sound the same? How are they different? — JS, Binghamton, NY
There are so many answers to these questions that I'll have to pick and choose. For their similarities, I'll note that they're both disturbances that travel through space and that both have wavelengths and frequencies. Sound is a pressure disturbance in the air (or in another material) and consists of compressions and rarefactions that travel outward from their origin. The distance between adjacent regions of compression (or rarefaction) is the sound's wavelength and the number of compressed regions that pass by a particular point each second is the sound's frequency (or pitch). Light is an electromagnetic disturbance in space itself, although materials that are present in that space can alter its characteristics somewhat. It consists of electric and magnetic fields that travel outward as waves from their origin. The distance between adjacent regions of maximum electric field (or magnetic field) in one direction is the light's wavelength and the number of regions in which the electric field points maximally in a particular direction that pass by a particular point each second is the light's frequency (or color). I hope that you can see some of the similarities in these descriptions.

As for differences, sound is a longitudinal wave—meaning that the air involved in the pressure fluctuations moves back and forth in the direction of the wave's travel. Thus if sound is moving from left to right, the air is also fluctuating back and forth from left to right. In contrast, light is a transverse wave—meaning, that the electric and magnetic fields involved in the wave fluctuate back and forth at right angles to the direction of the wave's travel. Thus if light is moving from left to right, the electric and magnetic fields associated with it are fluctuating either up and down or toward you and away from you (or both). Another difference is that sound travels about 300 meters per second and its speed depends on the speed of the air through which it travels. Light, on the other hand, travels about 300,000 kilometers per second and its speed in vacuum (empty space) is absolutely constant. The speed of light is one of the fundamental constants of the universe.

         

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