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Definition: the spatial period of a plane wave

German: Wellenlänge

Category: general optics

Formula symbol: λ

How to cite the article; suggest additional literature

The simplest kind of wave is a monochromatic plane wave, described by the following complex wave amplitude, being a function of spatial position x and time t:

plane wave

with the wavenumber k and the angular frequency ω. The wavenumber determines the wavelength, defined as the spatial period of the wave (e.g., the distance between subsequent oscillation maxima, see Figure 1):

wavelength from k
plane wave

Figure 1: A plane wave, with the wavelength illustrated with the black ruler in the middle.

(Note that in spectroscopy the wavenumber is normally considered as the inverse of the wavelength, not involving the factor 2 π.)

When propagating by one wavelength in x direction, the plane wave acquires a phase delay of 2 π.

Wavelength and frequency are related to each other: as the wave propagates by one wavelength within one oscillation cycle, its phase velocity c is given by:

phase velocity

For wave packets, there is another kind of velocity, called the group velocity, which can deviate from the phase velocity if there is chromatic dispersion, i.e., a dependence of the phase velocity on the frequency.

Note that for waves with a different spatial distribution – for example, for strongly focused laser beams, the amplitude is a function of position is in general not (or not exactly) periodic, and the spacing between subsequent wave maxima may somewhat deviate from the wavelength, which is always defined for a plane wave. See also the article on the Gouy phase shift, which is essentially a phase deviation of Gaussian beams against a plane wave for comparison.

Optical Waves: Vacuum Wavelength and the Wavelength in a Medium

If a monochromatic optical wave subsequently propagates through different transparent media, its wavelength will vary, while its optical frequency ν stays constant. Therefore, it would be most natural to characterize such a wave by its optical frequency. For historical reasons, it is more common, however, to characterize optical waves (light) with their vacuum wavelength, i.e., the wavelength which would occur for propagation through vacuum. Its value is close to the wavelength in air, since air, having a very low density, has only a week influence on the velocity of light; its refractive index is only very slightly above 1.

The output wavelength of a quasi-monochromatic light source (e.g., a laser) is always understood to be a vacuum wavelength. The wavelength in air is only so slightly smaller that this deviation is not relevant for most applications.

For a given vacuum wavelength λ0, the wavelength in a medium with refractive index n is λ 0 λ0 / n. Generally, the refractive index depends on the optical frequency or vacuum wavelength (→ chromatic dispersion).

For visible light, the vacuum wavelength is roughly between 400 nm and 700 nm; there are no precisely defined boundaries of the visible spectral region, since the sensitivity of the human eye is a smooth function of wavelength and also differs between individuals. Light with longer vacuum wavelengths is called infrared light, while light with shorter wavelengths is ultraviolet light.

If some physical quantity depends on an optical frequency, it is very often called wavelength-dependent instead of frequency-dependent, even if the spatial aspect does not play a role in the relevant phenomena.

Also one often specifies an optical bandwidth (e.g., the gain bandwidth of a laser gain medium) in terms of the width of the wavelength range rather than the frequency range. For the conversion between wavelength and frequency ranges one needs to keep in mind that the width of a frequency interval does not only depend on the width of the corresponding wavelength interval but also on the mean wavelength: δν = (c / λ2) δλ (assuming small intervals).

Measurement of Optical Wavelengths

Optical wavelengths can be measured with wavemeters, which are a kind of interferometers. The indirect evaluation of the wavelength from a measured optical frequency and the vacuum velocity of light can be far more precise, since optical frequencies can be measured with extremely high precision, and the vacuum velocity of light is nowadays (in the SI system) a defined quantity, i.e., without any measurement error.

Non-monochromatic Light

In many cases, light is not monochromatic, but rather exhibits a substantial optical bandwidth. It is then often of interest to determine how the optical power is distributed over different wavelengths or optical frequencies. This can be accomplished with optical spectrum analyzers, ideally delivering a precisely defined power spectral density (PSD) versus wavelength of frequency. The units of such a quantity can be W/nm or W/THz, for example.

Importance of Optical Wavelengths

The wavelength of light is relevant for a large number of phenomena. Some examples:

In many other cases, the actually irrelevant quantity is the optical frequency, which of course is related to the wavelength. For example, resonant effects in the optical pumping of laser-active ions cause strong frequency dependencies. The wavelengths themselves, being far larger than atoms or ions, are not relevant for those.

Special Types of Wavelengths

In optics and photonics, there are many different terms involving the word “wavelength”. Some examples:

See also: optical frequency, wavenumber, phase velocity, refractive index, wavemeters
and other articles in the category general optics

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