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The Doppler Effect

A Familiar Example

Heard an ambulance go by recently? Remember how the siren's pitch changed as the vehicle raced towards, then away from you? First the pitch became higher, then lower. Originally discovered by the Austrian mathematician and physicist, Christian Doppler (1803-53), this change in pitch results from a shift in the frequency of the sound waves, as illustrated in the following picture.

As the ambulance approaches, the sound waves from its siren are compressed towards the observer. The intervals between waves diminish, which translates into an increase in frequency or pitch. As the ambulance recedes, the sound waves are stretched relative to the observer, causing the siren's pitch to decrease. By the change in pitch of the siren, you can determine if the ambulance is coming nearer or speeding away. If you could measure the rate of change of pitch, you could also estimate the ambulance's speed.

By analogy, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by a moving object also exhibits the Doppler effect. The radiation emitted by an object moving toward an observer is squeezed; its frequency appears to increase and is therefore said to be blueshifted. In contrast, the radiation emitted by an object moving away is stretched or redshifted. As in the ambulance analogy, blueshifts and redshifts exhibited by stars, galaxies and gas clouds also indicate their motions with respect to the observer.

The Doppler Effect In Astronomy

In astronomy, the Doppler effect was originally studied in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Today, the Doppler shift, as it is also known, applies to electromagnetic waves in all portions of the spectrum. Also, because of the inverse relationship between frequency and wavelength, we can describe the Doppler shift in terms of wavelength. Radiation is redshifted when its wavelength increases, and is blueshifted when its wavelength decreases.

Astronomers use Doppler shifts to calculate precisely how fast stars and other astronomical objects move toward or away from Earth. For example the spectral lines emitted by hydrogen gas in distant galaxies is often observed to be considerably redshifted. The spectral line emission, normally found at a wavelength of 21 centimeters on Earth, might be observed at 21.1 centimeters instead. This 0.1 centimeter redshift would indicate that the gas is moving away from Earth at over 1,400 kilometers per second (over 880 miles per second).

Shifts in frequency result not only from relative motion. Two other phenomena can substantially the frequency of electromagnetic radiation, as observed. One is associated with very strong gravitational fields and is therefore known as Gravitational Redshift . The other, called the Cosmological Redshift, results not from motion through space, but rather from the expansion of space following the Big Bang, the fireball of creation in which most scientists believe the universe was born.

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Eleni Adrian, NCSA. Last modified by David Curtis, 6/24/95