|MLA Citation:||Bloomfield, Louis A. "Question 1568: What does a radio wave consist of?"|
How Everything Works 23 Oct 2017. 23 Oct 2017 <http://howeverythingworks.org/print1.php?QNum=1568>.
The idea of a wave that travels through space itself was a rather disorienting notion to scientists in the late 1800s. They were used to the idea that waves are disturbances in a tangible material or "medium": fluctuations in the density of air, ripples on the surface of water, vibrations of a taut string. Having observed that light and radio waves are electromagnetic waves, they set about looking for the medium that supported those waves. They were expecting to find this "luminiferous aether" but they failed. In fact, the absence of an aether led in part to Einstein's theory of special relativity.
The structure of a radio wave, or any electromagnetic wave, is quite simple. It consists only of a fluctuating electric field and a fluctuating magnetic field. An electric field is a structure in space that affects electric charge; it pushes on charge and causes that charge to accelerate. Similarly, a magnetic field is a structure that affects magnetic pole. Remarkably, changing electric fields produce magnetic fields and changing magnetic fields produce electric fields. That interrelatedness allows the wave's fluctuating electric field to produce its fluctuating magnetic field and vice verse. The wave's electric and magnetic fields endless recreate one another. Although electric charge or magnetic pole is needed to emit or receive a radio wave, that wave can travel perfectly well for billions of light years without involving any charge or pole. It travels through space itself.