The Doppler Effect
The shift in a wave's observed frequency due to relative motion between the source of the wave and the observer is known as the Doppler Effect. In essence, when the source and/or observer are moving toward each other, the observer perceives a shift to a higher frequency, and when the source and/or observer are moving away from each other, the observer perceives a lower frequency.
This can be observed when a vehicle travels past you. As you hear the vehicle approach, you can observe a higher frequency noise, and as the vehicle passes by you and then moves away, you observe a lower frequency noise.
The Doppler Effect results from waves having a fixed speed in a given medium. As waves are emitted, a moving source or observer encounters the wave fronts at a different frequency than they waves are emitted, resulting in a perceived shift in frequency. The animation below may help you visualize this effect:
Question: A car’s horn is producing a sound wave having a constant frequency of 350 hertz. If the car moves toward a stationary observer at constant speed, the frequency of the car’s horn detected by this observer may be:
- 320 Hz
- 330 Hz
- 350 Hz
- 380 Hz
Answer: If source is moving toward stationary observer, observed frequency must be higher than source frequency, therefore the correct answer is (4) 380 Hz.
Question: A radar gun can determine the speed of a moving automobile by measuring the difference in frequency between emitted and reflected radar waves. This process illustrates
- the Doppler effect
Answer: (2) the Doppler effect.
An exciting application of the Doppler Effect involves the analysis of radiation from distant stars and galaxies in the universe. Based on the basic elements that compose stars, we know what frequencies of radiation to look for. However, when analyzing these objects, we observe frequencies shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum (lower frequencies), known as the Red Shift. This indicates that these celestial objects must be moving away from us. The more distant the object, the greater the red shift. Putting this together, we can conclude that more distant celestial objects are moving away from us faster, and therefore, the universe as we know it must be expanding!
Question: When observed from Earth, the wavelengths of light emitted by a star are shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. This redshift occurs because the star is
- at rest relative to Earth
- moving away from Earth
- moving toward Earth at decreasing speed
- moving toward Earth at increasing speed
Answer: (2) moving away from Earth.