Chemistry » Electronic Structure of Atoms » Electromagnetic Energy

Waves Continued


One particularly characteristic phenomenon of waves results when two or more waves come into contact: They interfere with each other. The image below shows the interference patterns that arise when light passes through narrow slits closely spaced about a wavelength apart. The fringe patterns produced depend on the wavelength, with the fringes being more closely spaced for shorter wavelength light passing through a given set of slits.

When the light passes through the two slits, each slit effectively acts as a new source, resulting in two closely spaced waves coming into contact at the detector (the camera in this case). The dark regions in the image correspond to regions where the peaks for the wave from one slit happen to coincide with the troughs for the wave from the other slit (destructive interference), while the brightest regions correspond to the regions where the peaks for the two waves (or their two troughs) happen to coincide (constructive interference).

Likewise, when two stones are tossed close together into a pond, interference patterns are visible in the interactions between the waves produced by the stones. Such interference patterns cannot be explained by particles moving according to the laws of classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is a topic of discussion for physics students.


Interference fringe patterns are shown for light passing through two closely spaced, narrow slits. The spacing of the fringes depends on the wavelength, with the fringes being more closely spaced for the shorter-wavelength blue light. Image credit: PASCO

Standing Waves

Not all waves are travelling waves. Standing waves (also known as stationary waves) remain constrained within some region of space. As we shall see, standing waves play an important role in our understanding of the electronic structure of atoms and molecules. The simplest example of a standing wave is a one-dimensional wave associated with a vibrating string that is held fixed at its two end points. 

The figure below shows the four lowest-energy standing waves (the fundamental wave and the lowest three harmonics) for a vibrating string at a particular amplitude. Although the string’s motion lies mostly within a plane, the wave itself is considered to be one dimensional, since it lies along the length of the string. The motion of string segments in a direction perpendicular to the string length generates the waves and so the amplitude of the waves is visible as the maximum displacement of the curves seen in the figure.


A vibrating string shows some one-dimensional standing waves. Since the two end points of the string are held fixed, only waves having an integer number of half-wavelengths can form. The points on the string between the end points that are not moving are called the nodes. Image credit: OpenStax, Chemistry

The key observation from the figure is that only those waves having an integer number, n, of half-wavelengths between the end points can form. A system with fixed end points such as this restricts the number and type of the possible waveforms. This is an example of quantization, in which only discrete values from a more general set of continuous values of some property are observed.

Quantization is the concept that a physical quantity can have only certain discrete (particular) values. Electrical charge, energy, light, angular momentum, and matter are all quantized on the microscopic level.

Another important observation is that the harmonic waves (those waves displaying more than one-half wavelength) all have one or more points between the two end points that are not in motion. These special points are nodes. The energies of the standing waves with a given amplitude in a vibrating string increase with the number of half-wavelengths n. Since the number of nodes is n – 1, the energy can also be said to depend on the number of nodes, generally increasing as the number of nodes increases.

An example of two-dimensional standing waves is shown in the figure below, which shows the vibrational patterns on a flat surface. Although the vibrational amplitudes cannot be seen like they could in the vibrating string, the nodes have been made visible by sprinkling the drum surface with a powder that collects on the areas of the surface that have minimal displacement.

For one-dimensional standing waves, the nodes were points on the line, but for two-dimensional standing waves, the nodes are lines on the surface (for three-dimensional standing waves, the nodes are two-dimensional surfaces within the three-dimensional volume).


Two-dimensional standing waves can be visualized on a vibrating surface. The surface has been sprinkled with a powder that collects near the nodal lines. There are two types of nodes visible: radial nodes (circles) and angular nodes (radii). Image credit: OpenStax, Chemistry

Because of the circular symmetry of the drum surface, its boundary conditions (the drum surface being tightly constrained to the circumference of the drum) result in two types of nodes: radial nodes that sweep out all angles at constant radii and, thus, are seen as circles about the center, and angular nodes that sweep out all radii at constant angles and, thus, are seen as lines passing through the center. The upper left image in the figure shows two radial nodes, while the image in the lower right shows the vibrational pattern associated with three radial nodes and two angular nodes.

Video Illustration Showing Node Formation

You can watch the short video below showing the formation of various radial nodes as singer Imogen Heap projects her voice across a kettle drum.

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