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Interference

A phenomenon in which two waves superpose to form a resultant wave of greater, lower, or the same amplitude.

In physics, interference is a phenomenon in which two waves superpose to form a resultant wave of greater, lower, or the same amplitude. Constructive and destructive interference result from the interaction of waves that are correlated or coherent with each other, either because they come from the same source or because they have the same or nearly the same frequency. Interference effects can be observed with all types of waves, for example, light, radio, acoustic, surface water waves, gravity waves, or matter waves. The resulting images or graphs are called interferograms.

The principle of superposition of waves states that when two or more propagating waves of same type are incident on the same point, the resultant amplitude at that point is equal to the vector sum of the amplitudes of the individual waves. If a crest of a wave meets a crest of another wave of the same frequency at the same point, then the amplitude is the sum of the individual amplitudes—this is constructive interference. If a crest of one wave meets a trough of another wave, then the amplitude is equal to the difference in the individual amplitudes—this is known as destructive interference.
A magnified image of a coloured interference pattern in a soap film. The "black holes" are areas of almost total destructive interference (antiphase).

Constructive interference occurs when the phase difference between the waves is an even multiple of π (180°) , whereas destructive interference occurs when the difference is an odd multiple of π. If the difference between the phases is intermediate between these two extremes, then the magnitude of the displacement of the summed waves lies between the minimum and maximum values.

Consider, for example, what happens when two identical stones are dropped into a still pool of water at different locations. Each stone generates a circular wave propagating outwards from the point where the stone was dropped. When the two waves overlap, the net displacement at a particular point is the sum of the displacements of the individual waves. At some points, these will be in phase, and will produce a maximum displacement. In other places, the waves will be in anti-phase, and there will be no net displacement at these points. Thus, parts of the surface will be stationary—these are seen in the figure above and to the right as stationary blue-green lines radiating from the centre.

Interference of light is a common phenomenon that can be explained classically by the superposition of waves, however a deeper understanding of light interference requires knowledge of wave-particle duality of light which is due to quantum mechanics. Prime examples of light interference are the famous double-slit experiment, laser speckle, anti-reflective coatings and interferometers. Traditionally the classical wave model is taught as a basis for understanding optical interference, based on the Huygens–Fresnel principle.

Key Terms

amplitude
crest
difference
example
frequency
interference
light
point
wave
waves

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Last modified on April 20 2019
Content adapted from Wikipedia
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