Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds
 

Diffraction at narrow openings

Class Practical

Using barriers in a ripple tank to see what happens to plane waves at narrow openings.

Apparatus and materials

For each student group

Ripple tank and accessories

Hand stroboscope

Motor mounted on beam, with beam support

Side barriers (blocks of wood)

Barrier, short

Straight barrier

Moror mounted on beam, with beam support

Side barriers (blocks of wood)

Barrier, short

Health & Safety and Technical notes


Beware of water on the laboratory floor. Make sure you have a sponge and bucket handy to mop up spills immediately. 

Place the power supply for the lamp on a bench, not on the floor by the tank. 
 
Photo-induced epilepsy 
In all work with flashing lights, teachers must be aware of any student suffering from photo-induced epilepsy. This condition is very rare. However, make sensitive inquiry of any known epileptic to see whether an attack has ever been associated with flashing lights. If so, the student could be invited to leave the lab or shield his/her eyes as deemed advisable. It is impracticable to avoid the hazardous frequency range (7 to 15 Hz) in these experiments.

The short barrier should be about 2 cm long and weighted down so that it doesn’t float. A plastic object may be better than a metal one because it will scatter more clearly.

As the gap in the barrier is narrowed, until it is approximately the same size as the wavelength, then the emergent wave tends more and more to a semicircular shape. Some pupils will increase the gap width and see less diffraction with wider apertures. 

 

Procedure


Narrow opening in tanka Set the barriers parallel to the vibrating beam and about 5 cm away from it, as shown. Make the gap between the barriers 2 cm or less. 

b Generate straight waves with a wavelength of about 1 cm. 
 
c Look carefully at the waves as they pass through the opening. You should see diffraction through almost 90° on each side. 
 
d If waves coming round the outside ends of the barriers are troublesome, block them off with side barriers. 
 
e Increase the frequency of the waves (making the wavelength shorter). How does the pattern change? [You may need to use a stroboscope to see the wave pattern clearly.] 
 
Avoid using such high frequencies that the barriers themselves start to vibrate, giving misleading effects. You may want to try this with single pulses – the effects are easier to see. 


Teaching notes


Diffraction experiments are best done before interference experiments. They show how a straight parallel wave can become a point source producing a circular wave at the gap in a barrier.

Ripple tank2

As the gap in the barrier is narrowed, until it is approximately the same size as the wavelength, then the emergent wave tends more and more to a semicircular shape. Some pupils will increase the gap width and see less diffraction with wider apertures. 
 
Additional investigations you might suggest that students try 
f Generate circular ripples and see what happens as they pass through a gap. 
 
g Place obstacles about 2 to 5 cm wide (e.g. the short barriers) near the vibrator. Students should see that long waves are scarcely affected but the ‘shadow’ of the obstacle becomes sharper as the wavelength is reduced (or as the size of the obstacle is increased). They will need to use a stroboscope. 
 
h With a very small obstacle, some pupils may notice that weak circular ripples appear in the shadow as the main wave moves past otherwise undisturbed. This is just the way in which a small island affects sea waves. 

This experiment was safety-checked in February 2006