Next: Polarization of Plane Waves Up: The Free Space Wave Previous: The Wave Equation   Contents

Plane Waves

Plane waves can propagate in any direction. Any superposition of these waves, for all possible , is also a solution to the wave equation. However, recall that and are not independent, which restricts the solution in electrodynamics somewhat.

To get a feel for the interdependence of and , let's pick so that e.g.:

 (9.17) (9.18)

which are plane waves travelling to the right or left along the -axis for any complex , . In one dimension, at least, if there is no dispersion we can construct a fourier series of these solutions for various that converges to any well-behaved function of a single variable.

[Note in passing that:

 (9.19)

for arbitrary smooth and is the most general solution of the 1-dimensional wave equation. Any waveform that preserves its shape and travels along the -axis at speed is a solution to the one dimensional wave equation (as can be verified directly, of course). How boring! These particular harmonic solutions have this form (verify this).]

If there is dispersion (velocity a function of frequency) then the fourier superposition is no longer stable and the last equation no longer holds. Each fourier component is still an exponential, but their velocity is different, and a wave packet spreads out it propagates. We'll look at this shortly to see how it works for a very simple (gaussian) wave packet but for now we'll move on.

Note that and are connected by having to satisfy Maxwell's equations even if the wave is travelling in just one direction (say, in the direction of a unit vector ); we cannot choose the wave amplitudes separately. Suppose

where , , and are constant vectors (which may be complex, at least for the moment).

Note that applying to these solutions in the HHE leads us to:

 (9.20)

as the condition for a solution. Then a real leads to the plane wave solution indicated above, with , which is the most familiar form of the solution (but not the only one)!

This has mostly been mathematics'', following more or less directly from the wave equation. The same reasoning might have been applied to sound waves, water waves, waves on a string, or waves'' of nothing in particular. Now let's use some physics in the spirit suggested in the last section of the Syllabus and see what it tells us about the particular electromagnetic waves that follow from Maxwell's equations turned into the wave equation. These waves all satisfy each of Maxwell's equations separately.

For example, from Gauss' Laws we see e.g. that:

 (9.21)

or (dividing out nonzero terms and then repeating the reasoning for ):
 (9.22)

Which basically means for a real unit vector that and are perpendicular to , the direction of propagation! A plane electromagnetic wave is therefore a transverse wave. This seems like it is an important thing to know, and is not at all a mathematical conclusion of the wave equation per se.

Repeating this sort of thing using one of the the curl eqns (say, Faraday's law) one gets:

 (9.23)

(the cancels, ). This means that and have the same phase if is real9.4

If is real (and hence a unit vector), then we can introduce three real, mutually orthogonal unit vectors and use them to express the field strengths:

 (9.24)

and
 (9.25)

where and are constants that may be complex. It is worth noting that
 (9.26)

have the same dimensions and that the magnitude of the electric field is greater than that of the magnetic field to which it is coupled via Maxwell's Equations by a factor of the speed of light in the medium, as this will be used a lot in electrodynamics.

These relations describe a wave propagating in the direction . This follows from the (time-averaged) Poynting vector (for any particular component pair):

 (9.27) (9.28) (9.29) (9.30)

Now, kinky as it may seem, there is no real9.5 reason that cannot be complex (while remains real!) As an exercise, figure out the complex vector of your choice such that

 (9.31)

Since I don't really expect you to do that (gotta save your strength for the real problems later) I'll work it out for you. Note that this is:

 (9.32)

 (9.33)

 (9.34)

So, must be orthogonal to and the difference of their squares must be one. For example:
 (9.35)

works, as do infinitely more More generally (recalling the properties of hyberbolics functions):
 (9.36)

where the unit vectors are orthogonal should work for any .

Thus the most general such that is

 (9.37)

where (sigh) and are again, arbitrary complex constants. Note that if is complex, the exponential part of the fields becomes:
 (9.38)

This inhomogeneous plave wave exponentially grows or decays in some direction while remaining a plane wave'' in the other (perpendicular) direction.

Fortunately, nature provides us with few sources that produce this kind of behavior (Imaginary ? Just imagine!) in electrodynamics. So let's forget it for the moment, but remember that it is there for when you run into it in field theory, or mathematics, or catastrophe theory.

Instead we'll concentrate on kiddy physics descriptions of polarization when is a real unit vector, continuing the reasoning above.

Next: Polarization of Plane Waves Up: The Free Space Wave Previous: The Wave Equation   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-28