Wavelength (And: Why Is The Sky Blue?)

A very important type of length is wavelength, usually symbolized by the Greek letter λ (in m). It is defined as the distance from crest to crest (one complete cycle) and can easily be calculated for any wave by dividing the speed of the wave c (in m/s) by its frequency f (in Hz):

λ = c / f

What are typical wavelengths for sound? At room temperature, sound travels with a speed of c = 343 m/s. The chamber pitch has a frequency of f = 440 Hz. According to the equation, the corresponding wavelength is:

λ = 343 / 440 ≈ 0.8 m ≈ 2.6 ft

Are you surprised? I bet most people would greatly underestimate this value. Bass sounds are even longer than that. The lowest tone on a four-string bass guitar has a frequency of f = 41.2 Hz, which leads to the wavelength:

λ = 343 / 41.2 ≈ 8.3 m ≈ 27 ft

So the wave coming from the open E string of a bass guitar doesn’t even fit in a common room. In the case of light, the situation is very different. As noted in the introduction, the wavelength of light ranges between 4000 A (violet light) and 7000 A (red light), which is just below the size of a bacterium.

Wavelength plays an important role in explaining why the sky is blue. When light collides with a particle, parts of it are deflected while the rest continues along the initial path. This phenomenon is known as scattering. The smaller the wavelength of the light, the stronger the effect. This means that scattering is particularly pronounced for violet and blue light.

Unless you are looking directly at the Sun, all the light you see when looking at the sky is scattered light coming from the particles in the atmosphere. Since blue light tends to scatter so easily, the sky ends up in just this color. But why not violet? This is a legitimate question. After all, due to its smaller wavelength, violet light is even more willing to scatter. While this is true, it is also important to note that the sun’s rays don’t contain all the colors in the same ratio. In particular, they carry much less violet than blue light. On top of that, our eyes are less sensitive to violet light.

(This is an excerpt from my Kindle book: Physics! In Quantities and Examples)

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