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The diagram shows a sound wave with spherical air compressions emerging from a source moving toward the right. The source is shown to move with a velocity v sub s. The spherical air compressions are shown to move with velocity v sub w. The interference of sound waves is shown along two lines, one on each side of the waves. The angle between these two lines is labeled theta.
Sound waves from a source that moves faster than the speed of sound spread spherically from the point where they are emitted, but the source moves ahead of each. Constructive interference along the lines shown (actually a cone in three dimensions) creates a shock wave called a sonic boom. The faster the speed of the source, the smaller the angle θ .

There is constructive interference along the lines shown (a cone in three dimensions) from similar sound waves arriving there simultaneously. This superposition forms a disturbance called a sonic boom    , a constructive interference of sound created by an object moving faster than sound. Inside the cone, the interference is mostly destructive, and so the sound intensity there is much less than on the shock wave. An aircraft creates two sonic booms, one from its nose and one from its tail. (See [link] .) During television coverage of space shuttle landings, two distinct booms could often be heard. These were separated by exactly the time it would take the shuttle to pass by a point. Observers on the ground often do not see the aircraft creating the sonic boom, because it has passed by before the shock wave reaches them, as seen in [link] . If the aircraft flies close by at low altitude, pressures in the sonic boom can be destructive and break windows as well as rattle nerves. Because of how destructive sonic booms can be, supersonic flights are banned over populated areas of the United States.

An airplane is shown to fly above three observers on the ground. There are two conical shock waves or sonic booms created by the nose and tail of the aircraft. The observer on the left is shown to receive the conical shock wave from the tail of the aircraft, the observer in the middle receives the conical shock wave from the nose of the aircraft, and the observer on the right has not heard any sound, she is just wondering what is happening.
Two sonic booms, created by the nose and tail of an aircraft, are observed on the ground after the plane has passed by.

Sonic booms are one example of a broader phenomenon called bow wakes. A bow wake    , such as the one in [link] , is created when the wave source moves faster than the wave propagation speed. Water waves spread out in circles from the point where created, and the bow wake is the familiar V-shaped wake trailing the source. A more exotic bow wake is created when a subatomic particle travels through a medium faster than the speed of light travels in that medium. (In a vacuum, the maximum speed of light will be c = 3 . 00 × 10 8 m/s size 12{c=3 "." "00" times "10" rSup { size 8{8} } "m/s"} {} ; in the medium of water, the speed of light is closer to 0.75 c . If the particle creates light in its passage, that light spreads on a cone with an angle indicative of the speed of the particle, as illustrated in [link] . Such a bow wake is called Cerenkov radiation and is commonly observed in particle physics.

Photograph of a black duck swimming in water. The path left behind by the duck in water shows a near cone shape.
Bow wake created by a duck. Constructive interference produces the rather structured wake, while there is relatively little wave action inside the wake, where interference is mostly destructive. (credit: Horia Varlan, Flickr)
Photograph of the blue glow, in a research reactor pool.
The blue glow in this research reactor pool is Cerenkov radiation caused by subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light in water. (credit: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Doppler shifts and sonic booms are interesting sound phenomena that occur in all types of waves. They can be of considerable use. For example, the Doppler shift in ultrasound can be used to measure blood velocity, while police use the Doppler shift in radar (a microwave) to measure car velocities. In meteorology, the Doppler shift is used to track the motion of storm clouds; such “Doppler Radar” can give velocity and direction and rain or snow potential of imposing weather fronts. In astronomy, we can examine the light emitted from distant galaxies and determine their speed relative to ours. As galaxies move away from us, their light is shifted to a lower frequency, and so to a longer wavelength—the so-called red shift. Such information from galaxies far, far away has allowed us to estimate the age of the universe (from the Big Bang) as about 14 billion years.

Why did scientist Christian Doppler observe musicians both on a moving train and also from a stationary point not on the train?

Doppler needed to compare the perception of sound when the observer is stationary and the sound source moves, as well as when the sound source and the observer are both in motion.

Describe a situation in your life when you might rely on the Doppler shift to help you either while driving a car or walking near traffic.

If I am driving and I hear Doppler shift in an ambulance siren, I would be able to tell when it was getting closer and also if it has passed by. This would help me to know whether I needed to pull over and let the ambulance through.

Section summary

  • The Doppler effect is an alteration in the observed frequency of a sound due to motion of either the source or the observer.
  • The actual change in frequency is called the Doppler shift.
  • A sonic boom is constructive interference of sound created by an object moving faster than sound.
  • A sonic boom is a type of bow wake created when any wave source moves faster than the wave propagation speed.

Conceptual questions

Is the Doppler shift real or just a sensory illusion?

Due to efficiency considerations related to its bow wake, the supersonic transport aircraft must maintain a cruising speed that is a constant ratio to the speed of sound (a constant Mach number). If the aircraft flies from warm air into colder air, should it increase or decrease its speed? Explain your answer.

When you hear a sonic boom, you often cannot see the plane that made it. Why is that?

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of physics with linear momentum. OpenStax CNX. Aug 11, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11960/1.9
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