Skip to main content

What is the (Angular) Wavenumber?

Wave Number of a Sinusoidal Wave
Level 2 (without higher mathematics)
Level 2 requires school mathematics. Suitable for pupils.
Updated by Alexander Fufaev on

Wavenumber \(\nu\) (pronounced "Nu") is defined as:

Formula anchor

Here \( \lambda \) is the wavelength. So the wavenumber is simply the reciprocal of the wavelength. The SI unit of the wavenumber is: \( [\nu] ~=~ \frac{1}{\mathrm m} \).

Amplitude and wavelength of a wave
Wavelength as the distance between two wave crests.

You can read from the definition 1 of the wavenumber: The larger the wavelength \( \lambda \) of the function is, the smaller the wavenumber!

The wavenumber \( \nu \), is a spatial frequency and is similar to the temporal frequency \( f \), which we can read from, for example, the unit: While the temporal frequency has the SI unit \( \frac{1}{\mathrm s} \), the wavenumber has the unit \( \frac{1}{\mathrm m} \). For example, let's take a sine function:

  • Frequency states how many times the period \(T\) fits into one second.

    Frequency of a Sinusoidal Wave
    Frequency of a sinusoidal wave here is \(f = 3.5 / \mathrm{s}\) (Hz).
  • Wavenumber states how many times the wavelength \(\lambda\) fits into one meter.

    Wave Number of a Sinusoidal Wave
    Wavenumber of a sinusoidal wave here is \(\nu = 2.5 / \mathrm{m}\).

With the help of the relation \( v_{\text p} ~=~ \lambda \, f \) you can express the definition 1 of the wavenumber with the help of the frequency of the wave \( f \) and its propagation velocity (more exactly: phase velocity) \( v_{\text p} \):

Formula anchor
Phase velocity of a wave crest
Phase velocity indicates how fast a wave crest propagates from A to B.

As you can see from the equation 2, the frequency \(f\) and the wavenumber \(\nu\) are related by the phase velocity \(v_{\text p}\) of the wave.

  • The faster the wave propagates, the smaller the wave number and the larger the frequency.

  • The slower the wave moves, the larger the wavenumber and the smaller the frequency.

  • The larger the frequency \( f \) of the wave, the larger the wavenumber \(\nu\).

  • The smaller the propagation speed \( v_{\text p} \) of the wave, the larger the wavenumber \(\nu\).

Angular wave number

Die Kreiswellenzahl \(k\) unterscheidet sich von der Definition 1 der Wellenzahl \(\nu\) durch den Faktor \(2\pi\):

Formula anchor

Note that in the literature, especially in solid state physics, the angular wavenumber is simply called the wavenumber. Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that what is actually meant is the angular wavenumber with the factor \(2\pi\).

If you compare definition 1 of wavenumber and definition 3 of angular wavenumber, you will see that they are related as follows:

Formula anchor