For Physics aficionados the different waves and their characteristics could be crystal clear but for others, the difference between mechanical and electromagnetic waves may not be so much easy to grasp.
- Mechanical waves require a medium to travel through, such as air, water, or solid materials, and include sound waves and ocean waves.
- Electromagnetic waves can travel through a vacuum, consisting of oscillating electric and magnetic fields, and include light, radio waves, and X-rays.
- The need for a propagating medium distinguishes mechanical waves from electromagnetic waves, which can travel through space.
Mechanical Wave vs Electromagnetic Wave
The difference between mechanical and electromagnetic waves is that mechanical waves cannot travel without a medium whereas electromagnetic waves can travel through a vacuum with the help of any medium.
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Another stark difference between the two is that the distance traveled by mechanical waves depends upon the elasticity of the medium it uses whereas the characteristics of an electromagnetic wave depend upon acting magnetic and electric fields.
These two types of waves also vary in their speed. A mechanical wave travels much slower than an electrical wave which travels as fast as light.
|Parameter of Comparison||Mechanical Waves||Electromagnetic Waves|
|Medium||Cannot travel without a medium||Can travel without a medium|
|Factors affecting||Elasticity and inertia||magnetic and electric fields|
|Speed||Travels with the speed of the medium||Travels at the speed of light|
|Types||Transverse and Longitudinal||Only Transverse|
|Examples||Sound waves, surface waves||Microwaves, Radio waves, etc.|
What is Mechanical Wave?
According to definitions, mechanical waves are waves that are the result of oscillating matter and their movement is what carries the wave forward.
Therefore, a mechanical wave can harbor speed that is limited to the speed of the medium and can only move in the direction that the medium carries it.
A mechanical wave can be of three types, longitudinal, transverse, and surface waves. A longitudinal wave is formed when the particles of the medium oscillate parallel to the forward direction of the wave.
A transverse wave is formed when the particles of the wave vibrate perpendicular to the direction of movement while a surface wave is formed when the waves move at the interface of two media.
What is Electromagnetic Wave?
Electromagnetic waves are the result of accelerating electrically charged particles that intern affects other particles around them.
An electromagnetic field is a result of changing electric and magnetic fields whose direction point 90 degrees to each other.
Since electromagnetic radiation consists of no particles and only oscillating electric and magnetic fields, they do not need any medium to propagate. They can thus travel through a vacuum.
In other words, electromagnetic waves are made of photons, which are uncharged particles that can travel at the speed of light. These waves propagate energy, momentum, and angular momentum away from the source.
As these photons move away from its parent source, it no more requires a continuous supply of energy to keep it in motion and thus creates what is called the far-field.
Main Differences Between Mechanical Wave and Electromagnetic Wave
- An example of a mechanical wave is a sound wave whereas a microwave, a radio wave, infrared, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, Visible light, and gamma rays are examples of electromagnetic waves.
- Mechanical waves are waves that are the result of oscillating matter and their movement is what carries the wave forward whereas Electromagnetic waves are the result of accelerating electrically charged particles.
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Piyush Yadav has spent the past 25 years working as a physicist in the local community. He is a physicist passionate about making science more accessible to our readers. He holds a BSc in Natural Sciences and Post Graduate Diploma in Environmental Science. You can read more about him on his bio page.