Physics and Chemistry

Light, Sound, and Other Waves

What is the Doppler effect?

The Austrian physicist Christian Doppler (1803–1853) in 1842 explained the phenomenon of the apparent change in wavelength of radiation—such as sound or light—emitted either by a moving body (source) or by the moving receiver. The frequency of the wavelengths increases and the wavelength becomes shorter as the moving source approaches, producing high-pitched sounds and bluish light (called blue shift). Likewise, as the source recedes from the receiver the frequency of the wavelengths decreases, the sound is pitched lower, and light appears reddish (called red shift). This Doppler effect is commonly demonstrated by the whistle of an approaching train or the roar of a jet aircraft.

There are three differences between acoustical (sound) and optical (light) Doppler effects: The optical frequency change is not dependent on what is moving—the source or observer—nor is it affected by the medium through which the waves are moving, but acoustical frequency is affected by such conditions. Optical frequency changes are affected if the source or observer moves at right angles to the line connecting the source and observer. Observed acoustical changes are not affected in such a situation. Applications of the Doppler phenomenon include the Doppler radar and the measurement by astronomers of the motion and direction of celestial bodies.


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