Wavelength

Wavelength

There are many kinds of waves all around us. There are waves in the ocean and in lakes. Did you also know that there are also waves in the air? Sound travels through the air in waves and light is made up of waves of electromagnetic energy.

The wavelength of a wave describes how long the wave is. The distance from the "crest" (top) of one wave to the crest of the next wave is the wavelength. Alternately, we can measure from the "trough" (bottom) of one wave to the trough of the next wave and get the same value for the wavelength.

The frequency of a wave is inversely proportional to its wavelength. That means that waves with a high frequency have a short wavelength, while waves with a low frequency have a longer wavelength.

Light waves have very, very short wavelengths. Red light waves have wavelengths around 700 nanometers (nm), while blue and purple light have even shorter waves with wavelengths around 400 or 500 nm. Some radio waves, another type of electromagnetic radiation, have much longer waves than light, with wavelengths ranging from millimeters to kilometers.

Sound waves traveling through air have wavelengths from millimeters to meters. Low-pitch bass notes that humans can barely hear have huge wavelengths around 17 meters and frequencies around 20 hertz (Hz). Extremely high-pitched sounds that are on the other edge of the range that humans can hear have smaller wavelengths around 17 mm and frequencies around 20 kHz (kilohertz, or thousands of Hertz). 

© 2018 UCAR with portions adapted from Windows to the Universe (© 2006 NESTA)